Almost unbearably delicate, almost unbearably tender; strong as diamond.
This is one of those properly fabulous books which gently, carefully wraps skeins of gossamer around the reader, taking its time, settling into character, relationship and location, until it steals upon you, that for all the quietness and subtlety of the scene setting, you are wrapped up, little fly, in Doerr’s spider’s web of a novel, which traps you more deeply, line by line
Paris, 1934 and later St. Malo, before and during the war. Marie-Laure is a young girl, whose father works as a locksmith in the Museum. She is precocious, intelligent, sensitive, with a thirst for knowledge. Loved and loveable. And she is blind.
1934, an orphanage in Zollverein, a coal mining complex near Essen. Werner Pfennig, a scant year older than Marie-Laure, is another young child with huge potential. He is fascinated by how things work, and has a gift for making, repairing, deconstructing in order to improve. He too is precocious, intelligent, sensitive, with a thirst for knowledge, Loved and loveable.
What divides these children is formative influence, although both are lucky enough to have their humanity and potential fostered enough at an early age to mean that the boy who will be swallowed by the propaganda machine of Fascism and the Fascists, will not quite have that early potentiality for the curious, connecting, mutuality that life also is, crushed.
Though the State worked its hardest to crush out individuality and curiosity for ‘the other’ out of their young men and women, some kernel of something else may remain unscathed, like a dormant seed.
The book’s structure jumps between various times, back and forth, and between short chapters which alternate between Marie-Laure’s world, and Werner’s. Doerr takes us to the edge of certain events, then back tracks, to show a part of the journey that led there, jumps forward again, then back, but always switching between the two worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner, in the ten years between 1934 and a particular event in St. Malo. The reader is absolutely aware the two will meet, and is absolutely aware that there is a very human integrity in both children – and moreover, Doerr is careful to show that despite the most vicious and brutal efforts of any ideology which seeks to educate out the humane response, this survives, more or less strongly, in some individuals.
What I particularly loved (amongst many things) in this book, was the undercurrent of connection to the natural world – Marie-Laure has a fascination with molluscs, and how shells are slowly formed, how life slowly built up. Werner has a friend who shimmers with a love of birds – these connections to ‘other’ are both real and metaphor. Music, reading, an appreciation for the beautiful which has no connection to its material value – but is some evidence of ‘soulfulness’ is shown.
Venality, brutality, bleak violence, the other side are of course also revealed.
Holding this complex, thought inspiring book together is not just fabulous, layered, surprising authentic characterisation, but a plotline which provides a drive, cohesion and both a ‘real’ and a metaphorical meaning of its own.
Within the Paris museum which Marie-Laure’s father works at, is a fabulous, hugely valuable jewel. And like many fabulous, valuable jewels it comes with its own story, and has accreted fables to itself, over the generations. People invest things with meaning, magic and metaphor. Are these real, or not?
As the German army move closer to Paris, the museum curator takes steps to break up and hide some of France’s artistic and crafted treasures.
The army of occupation is also on a quest of plunder, to search for and steal the treasures of conquered nations.
There is a game of hide and seek, and this is played out in several ways
This book is definitely a page-turner – but it is one which urges the reader to take time with the turning, because so much is going on, unfolding, evolving, revealing.
Doerr writes beautifully, but not ostentatiously so. He has also kept his story simple and clear. Yes, of course, like any story there will be ‘coincidences’ but life is full of these. And most of the ‘coincidences’, other than the ones of sheer happenstance, why this person might be in this place and not another, are authentically driven by who characters are.
There is that lovely sense of a writer, sure, who knows what he is doing, but one who has surrendered to the complexity of the arising characters. This is not a writer who picks up a character and plonks him or her like a cog in a machine, so that the reader spots manipulation.
From the molten basements of the world, two hundred miles down, it comes. One crystal in a seam of others. Pure carbon, each atom linked to four equidistant neighbors, perfectly knit, octahedral, unsurpassed in hardness. Already it is old : unfathomably so. Incalculable eons tumble past. The earth shifts, shrugs, stretches. One year, one day, one hour, a great magma gathers a seam of crystals and drives it towards the surface, mile after burning mile; it cools inside a huge, smoking xenolith of kimberlite, and there it waits.
Doerr’s beautiful description of the forces which produce diamonds, also spoke to me both of the evolution of life itself, human endeavour and development and of creative impulse.
The writer too, may be percolating a story, hidden in the darkness, for a lifetime. It too with one year, one day, one hour get driven towards the surface, a burning mile. And cool, and wait, and allow process to arise, work to be done, the jewel to be cut, crafted, polished, revealed – and released to the reader, to give it the fables and the stories they will.
I loved this, profoundly.
Doerr was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American novelists. Well deserved.
And, for once the dust jacket comparisons to a couple of other books, if you loved, you will love, type of thing, (Atonement, Birdsong) I think are compliments to those earlier books, that they share a space with this fine one.
I received this from Amazon Vine UK as a copy for review. Lucky me. One to keep and re-read, for sure.