So, I bought this book when it was first released, and have only just got around to reading it. This is a common fault of mine: buying a book I know I must read and not making time to do so. Can anyone else relate to this?
Anyway, this is a novel worth reading.
‘How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?’
This novel is set in France and Germany, before and during the French Occupation of France. It involves two main characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who has been blind since the age of 6 and who lives in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan, whose ability to fix radios changes his life forever.
Marie-Laure’s father has worked hard to ensure that she will be as independent as possible despite her blindness. M. LeBlanc works at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where he keeps the keys. Deep in the vaults of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, is an accursed diamond known as ‘The Sea of Flame’. This diamond will have its own part to play in the novel. M. LeBlanc has constructed a miniature replica of their neighbourhood to help Marie-Laure navigate her own way. With patience and perseverance, Marie-Laure achieves a level of independence. But the Nazi invasion of Paris cause Marie-Laure and her father to flee to Saint-Malo.
‘Your problem, Werner,’ says Frederick, ‘is that you still believe you own your own life.’
And Werner? He and his sister Jutta live in a children’s home in Berlin with other orphans. They are well cared for. Werner is destined to work in the mine where his father was killed, as soon as he turns 15. But Werner’s chance find of a broken radio, his ability to work out what was wrong and to fix it is drawn to the attention of the Nazis. Werner is taken from the children’s home, moved into a military academy, and then into the war.
‘Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’
‘The Sea of Flame’ is entrusted to M. LeBlanc, and he and Marie-Laure settle into life in Saint-Malo. But the war is not yet over, and others are in search of the accursed diamond. Marie-Laure has learned to make her way around the house in Saint-Malo and her immediate neighbourhood. Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in Saint-Malo: will either of them survive the war?
‘Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist.’
It took me a while to get into this novel, to understand the shifts in time, to appreciate the story unfolding. The writing held my attention from the beginning, although I occasionally felt overwhelmed by adjectives. I wanted to understand the situations the characters were in, and I appreciated M. Le Blanc’s patience with Marie-Laure, his ability to create both puzzles and miniatures, his willingness to take responsibility for ‘The Sea of Flame’. Of the three major characters, it was Werner I became most attached to. Of the secondary characters, it was Marie-Laure’s Great-Uncle Etienne who held my interest.
I bought a copy of this book when it was first released, but only recently took the time to read it after a friend urged me to. This is the kind of novel that stays with you for some time after you’ve finished it. The imagery, the characters and the situations. I kept wondering: what would I do in the face of such challenges?
This is a novel to read slowly and to think about.