It’s not very often that I’m drawn to read historical novels, yet this one received so many accolades, including this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, that my curiosity prevailed. I can see why it has wide appeal: Doerr has a sentimental writing style and the alternating chapters are short enough that they can’t get too complicated — they generally pull each other along swiftly. Early on this pacing felt choppy to me, and I’d set the book aside after a few tiny chapters, making it a much slower read until I adjusted to the constant jostling.
Set primarily in occupied France during WWII, the focus is divided between two young people on opposing sides. One is a French girl name Marie-Laure who lives with her father, a locksmith for the Natural History Museum. She lost her sight at a young age, but her father teaches her how to navigate their neighborhood by constructing a scale-model of the streets around them, so she can memorize them by touch. The other is Werner, a German boy who was orphaned young along with his sister. His prodigious talent with radios leads to him to a role with the Nazis, tracking down the Resistance via their radio signals. Though they start out in very diﬀerent worlds, eventually their paths convene.
In addition to alternating the character focus each chapter, there are also alternating spaces in time, such that the books starts near the end — in Saint-Malo shortly before it was nearly destroyed in 1944 — but ﬁlls in how both Marie-Laure and Werner grew up and arrived there. Though this sort of see-saw storytelling has become so common, it’s hard to say in this case whether it helps build the intensity or fragments it, especially since the focus oscillates on a few diﬀerent narrative surfaces at once.
The big side story is the whereabouts of a large diamond called the Sea of Flame, which has been housed in the Natural History Museum. When Marie-Laure and her father ﬂee Paris, he carries with him a stone that may be the real thing or may be one of three replicas. A Nazi treasure-hunter hears of it and becomes desperate to track it down, since the legend around it says who ever keeps it will be cursed with misfortune yet live forever. It feels a little strange that amidst the backdrop of WWII, a story could need a mysterious jewel caper, yet it ties signiﬁcantly into the plot.
Doerr says the title refers in part to all the untold stories of WWII, so while this novel feels like a group of relatively small ones, there is a understated magic to it that is part of something bigger.