He shows that the terror can be only a background for a whole another story written in short chapters and depicting human nature and its power to see the light in places where it seems to disappear.
The story is set some years before and then during the World War II in two locations: occupied France and Hitler’s Germany. There’s an orphan boy in Germany and one blind girl living in the heart of Paris. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the only precious daughter of her father – a master locksmith working at the museum. She lost her sight at the age of six, yet her widower father never hints on her condition to be a defect. By creating wooden models of their street, taking her with to work, going with her to different locations and supervising to develop the sense of touch, he teaches her how to pull through in a whole new world without images. The man goes far than that: he buys expensive books in Braille to enhance Marie’s perception of a fantastic world explored by Jules Verne. And through the entire story, we never notice a hint of girl’s complaints. Things and objects, people and nature she can’t see for obvious reasons, Marie imagines and knows by sounds and smells.
At the same time, the neighboring country is getting ready for war. An eight-year-old Werner Pfennig lives in the Children’s Home in Zollverein together with his sister and a few other children without parents or bright future. Unlike other dwellers, he and his sister Jutta do not care for Nazism. What they are really engaged in is listening to the radio and learning incredible things from programs broadcasted by an unknown Frenchman with a low and tender voice.
Their lives change when the Nazis come to France in 1940. Marie and her father leave their home place and a comfortable apartment to reach the land of Marie’s uncle Etienne, who after a while becomes girl’s best friend and supporter when her father disappears. There’s something he left in one of Marie’s models. There’s something precious she has owned all the time, and what a Nazi gemologist von Rumpel will come for.
A talented German boy joins other extraordinary white-haired and blue-eyed teens at a nightmarish school for the military people of the country. It seems as though he gets what he wanted: the talent is noticed and even though he has no money, he is accepted, trained, and respected. But not by Jutta… She seems to have more light and hers is bright enough to see how fast her beloved brother has become one of those, who made their father and thousands of other orphans’ dads work for living coal-mining.
As years go by, Marie-Laure lives her own life with her extraordinary uncle, finds out about his secret hidden in the attic and joins the group of French guerrillas that works for the benefit of France. While the girl keeps growing the light she has inside, Werner loses more of his day after day. Deep inside, there’s the voice that tells him things are not what they should be: prisoners should not be humiliated and left in the cold to die, classmates should not be hunted and beaten to death, killing others is not what their nation should do to prove its superiority. But the voice keeps down for years. Werner is sent to war and he does his job not only repairing radios around the occupied lands. He watches as others are killed and does nothing to save them. Deep inside him, there’s still the light he cannot see. And every reader knows one day Werner will make it get brighter.
While looking for guerrillas, he comes across the same voice he listened to in the Children’s Home in Zollverein. Werner goes against his comrades and never reveals the secret until he hears the voice of a girl asking for help…
Though one can find dozens of books about World War II written by modern authors, there’s hardly a novel like this. There are several setting and an extraordinary writing manner: chapters are short and the action takes place both in the past and present. A reader starts with the final scenes and then goes back to the very beginning to know how it happened and what deeds led to this outcome. Anthony Doerr uses gorgeous metaphors and has a great sense of physical details which help him to show passionate readers from all world corners that even in terrible settings and moments, there are still people, who keep the light inside brighter and try to be good to one another even if they are in different camps.