This book was an incredible surprise to me. I knew going in that this was a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but I feel like World War II is a worn-out setting and I expected some pretty words and a fairly dull plot. I, honestly, was mistaken.
“Now it seems there are only shadows and silence. Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters… So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished.”
This is a beautifully told story. I have read few novels that have evoked imagery as strong as this novel. The words are gorgeous. I found myself savoring every sentence as they flew past. I will admit, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Zach Appelman. His cadence and pace were perfect for this. I was listening to this book as I drove home once and I missed the exit for my house completely. I was just so absorbed by the imagery being evoked and the beautiful way everything was described. I honestly felt like I was using all my senses to experience this book at times. Also, as an American with little exposure to the French and German languages, I would have horribly mispronounced many names in my head. Marie-Laure is just beautiful when spoken aloud. Thank you, Appelman, for helping me really understand the words.
“When I lost my light, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
I’ve discussed this book in person with a few people, both men and women. What fascinates me the most about these conversations is listening to people describe which character, between Werner and Marie-Laure, they were most drawn to. I personally am captivated by Marie-Laure. And so are all my female friends. But my male friends all find themselves desperately waiting for Werner’s return. Not that anyone didn’t like these characters- it’s just about who they were drawn to. Fascinating.
“It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is.”
The characters are compelling. Each and every one. There is not a single character I didn’t connect to on some level, even if I didn’t always like them. After all, I can’t be expected to love every Nazi character. What this book did a great job of was showing the humanity within everyone. Even Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, whom I find cold and calculating, I can empathize with from a humanitarian perspective.
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your own life.”
Werner’s story shows how little control over their own lives the German people had. They were victims as much as many others were. The lies the German government told them were all they knew, and the soldiers in their armies might not have all believed they were really doing the right thing. Alas, it was the only choice they had. It’s clear to me that many men wrestled with the choice to make, and the fear of losing ones life will inspire great and terrible acts.
Marie-Laure’s story shows us a perspective most of us will never understand: through blind, open eyes. She is just a young French girl coming of age during the war. That story in itself might not be compelling, but she has been blind since age 6. Experiencing Marie-Laure’s world is a breath of fresh air to me, and also filled me with incredible fear. She is easy to love. Her apparent vulnerability also draws people to her. Little do they know that blindness is not a handicap to Marie-Laure…
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”
I just wanted more and more to experience her world.
“What the war did to dreamers.”
This book has no real happy ending, but that is to be expected. This is war we are dealing with. But, this book shows the reader a spark of kindness and humanity hiding in the destruction all around in World War II. I highly recommend this to everyone.