I’m a huge voice fan. And last fall I had the tremendous good luck to see Zach Appelman as Hamlet at The Hartford Stage. If it hadn’t been the last day, I would have gone back as often as possible, sacrificing groceries and any bills necessary – and books – to see it again and again. Books. This was serious. But it was the last day, and so I have to just be thankful I got to see the best Hamlet of my experience that one time. Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, even Derek Jacobi and David Tennant – all pale. Appelman was incredible. If he’s in anything anywhere near you, go see him.
So I admit it – the solitary reason I downloaded this book was for him. I also admit I hadn’t heard of either author or title. (Yes, I know (now): it won a Pulitzer. I don’t get out much.) Now, it has to be said that Zach Appelman’s French is very … American, and there’s a fair amount of French in the book. I don’t care. I’m a fangirl. His is a quiet, level voice; character voices are subtle and affecting. He gives a little chuckle as he reads a line about Marie-Laure and her father accidentally burning a tart, and it makes all the difference in the world. I’d be happy with the phone book. (ETA: But not, as it turns out, The Odyssey.)
I would be happy with the phone book – but this isn’t the phone book. It won a Pulitzer, and I’m really very happy about that. It is the story of a clever young blind girl in France and a young clever mechanically-minded boy in Germany (Marie-Laure and Werner) whose paths slowly converge and finally collide, and all the while coil around a mysterious gemstone which is both more and less than a Maguffin. And it is the story of, in its way, light, and how it soaks through the lives of two children in wartime; where light comes from, and where it goes, and how it affects everything it touches, or doesn’t. It’s simple. It’s intricate. It runs deep and sparkles on the surface, like the ocean Marie-Laure comes to love so much.
“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light, and yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Marie-Laure’s half of the book – which alternates with Werner’s – is a fascinating exploration of blindness from the inside. “Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver. Pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden…” The story is not sentimentalized, even given the fact that her mother is dead. She loses her sight, and adapts, and her rather wonderful father (named Daniel LeBlanc, which was (in a way) my grandfather’s name, which is kind of wonderful) adapts, and then the War comes.
The tale of young Werner Pfennig is a clear illustration of how it all happened. He is a very gifted boy, but utterly penniless, and is informed quite definitely that he will be going into the coal mines when he is fifteen. His father died in the mines. And he knows he is capable of much more than that life. And once he recognizes what he needs to do to change the direction of his life, he makes the determination to do it, do anything. It is “a way out”. “You have been called,” he is told. He hates what the Reich encourages men to do, but in that time and in that place, how else can he ever find the outlet for his abilities? He is given no choice … but even had there been a choice the path the Reich offers him is enough to balance the horrors that line it. Until it isn’t.
Werner wants everything to change; Marie-Laure wants everything to stay the same. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Werner gets his wish, in that at least.
Stones are just stones, and rain is just rain, and misfortune is just bad luck.
Point of view is scattered and unfocused. Chapters are broken into sections, and while they mostly alternate between Werner and Marie-Laure, sometimes they carom off to Van Rumpel, Marie’s father, others. Even within one discrete section the POV sometimes flickers – one moment Marie-Laure, one moment omniscient talking about how things look. Sometimes it is how Marie-Laure imagines they look, sometimes not.
But … it doesn’t really matter. They say you have to know the rules in your bones before you can break them without making a fool of yourself, and I think I can safely excuse the flickering POV by saying Doerr knows the rules, very well. There’s a measurable difference between no idea what he’s doing and unquestionably doing that on purpose and to effect. I never tend to seek out award winners or suchlike. But it gives me a surprisingly warm glow that this book, this lovely thing, this superlative experience, won a Pulitzer.