The novel itself is written in a unique way – a parallel narration of the two main characters – Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl living with her father, the master locksmith of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Werner is an orphaned German boy living in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta.The story opens on August 7, 1944 in the town of Saint-Malo, France as pamphlets are being dropped on the town, warning of the impending bombing. Warning the residents to flee. Marie-Laure, 16 years of age is alone and blind. In the basement of a nearby hotel is Warner, also 16, a radio operator with the Nazi Army.The seaside town is quickly under siege, bombs are dropped, fires burn, and buildings are left in ruin. The story then steps back to 1934. The two stories, one of Marie-Laure and one of Werner, continue to run parallel throughout the novel. Starting when they are about six and progressing as they grow-up. Marie-Laure is learning and adapting to a world of darkness after she loses her sight. Werner, a prodigy, teaches himself all about radios. Not only is the story told in a parallel nature, it also travels back and forth though time. You learn of their individual years of growing up during 1934 – 1944, one in France and one in Germany, and then switch back to the present situation in Saint-Malo during August 1944. You know Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives will intersect, but you are never really certain until you are deep into the book, what exactly is the connection that they share.
Their lives could not be more different – yet there is a shared humanity and innocence of children even during time of war. Marie-Lure is surrounded by a loving family, her father, an uncle, and his housekeeper. Her father teaches her how to use all of her senses to become independent. Then Marie-Lure helps her uncle, a World War I Vet, to let go of some of his demons. Werner’s younger sister Jutta becomes Werner’s conscience as he is sent off to a Nazi Youth Military School for the elite. His is smart and wants nothing to do with the mines, the place his father died a crushing death, and the certain route for a young boy in an orphanage. Yet the life of a Nazi solider is not what fits him either. He tries hard to look away, and constantly beats himself up for not speaking up, for not standing up to the violence.
As in most stories, in the end there is redemption. But that does not mean it ends on a happy note. This is a story of war and survival.
I do not want to give anything away. If you like historical pieces, complex character, and a plot that travels into many different directions – this is the story for you. Anthony Doeer is a master storyteller, bringing the story to life through all of the senses. You touch, smell, and hear through blind Marie-Lure’s senses. You empathize with Werner as he faces horrors. You can’t help but make connections between the young boys trained for war and current world situations. This is a multifaceted story. One that lingers much longer that the close of the book.