“No two persons ever read the same book.”
Emily St. John Mandel quoted Edmund Wilson at the recent book reading at Shakespeare and Company, in reference to her “Station Eleven” narration, and this book is perhaps the perfect example of how no single situation is seen in the same way from all angles at all times. In the course of the narration, we follow several characters through the vagaries of wartime Europe, in particular plucky young Marie-Laure and resilient, resourceful Werner, and there is an acute appreciation all the way through of just how difficult it must have been to survive such troubled times, from whatever angle.
There are many things to love about this work, but one of the key merits has to lie in the clever use of grey and not just black and white – while I enjoy reading Ken Follett’s cathedrals’ books, for example, he does have this unerring tendency to make the good guys too heroic and the bad guys too dastardly. Here we do definitely get a sense of how people do try to do good and of how human nature can prevail, yet the survival instinct is also understandably prevalent in some less benevolent moments once the walled city has been seized – and I feel Anthony Doerr also managed to steer clear of mawkish sentimentality very successfully, particularly towards the end of the tale.
The story itself covers over 500 pages and is broken down into several threads that interlink over time, with flashes back from 1944 to 1934 and the very final pages taking place in 2014. Lots of short chapters, lots of short sentences and very many brief descriptive passages that I suspect thrill most readers and turn away just a few. But surely not many can fail to be entranced:
“Silence is the fruit of the occupation…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.”
“The clack-clack of small-arms fire. The gravelly snare drums of flak. A dozen pigeons roosting on the cathedral spire cataract down its length and wheel out over the sea.”
“Slowly, gratefully, the world settles. From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were falling from the sky.”
At the heart of the novel is indeed a bijou mystery, unearthed by the guide of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in one of the opening chapters of the book, involving a precious jewel and the unforgettable (endearingly be-freckled) heroine Marie-Laure, whose “rapidly deteriorating eyesight” sees her losing her sight completely within a month of hearing the fable of the mysterious and potentially destructive Sea of Flames. Layers within layers as we follow her cautiously step by step round the streets of Saint-Malo with her cane, and the author brings to life her stoic endurance just perfectly through the vehicle of the brilliant introduction of the miniature cities her father fashions to bring light where there is none.
“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.”
A worthy successor to “The Goldfinch”, this brand new Pulitzer prize-winner pulls off quite a coup: at the same time it succeeds in being a yarn well spun, using a masterful use of very descriptive vocabulary and a highly credible plot teeming with plausible characters. Maybe, just maybe a little drawn out around two thirds of the way through, but by the time you start to think it’s getting a little long we are suddenly propelled into the final swirl, so it would be churlish to find fault, I think.
Checked on Mr Doerr’s website and not a hope of a trip to Europe yet, surely a visit to Saint-Malo or the Jardin des Plantes should be on the cards in the not too distant?
Oh, and PS – while at L’s 21st in Leeds last September, we found ourselves in the great big and beloved Waterstone’s shop, heads spinning at the plethora of new books everywhere and yet determined not to fill the suitcase with too much, so we asked the very nice young salesman: “If you had to choose just one new book to recommend, which one would it be?” And guess which one he picked, without a trace of hesitation. Three floors of literary wonders, and this is the one he went for, that’s quite the commendation.
Overall, very much to admire, and a Must Read for 2015.
Read in May 2015.
Rating : 10/10
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015, Winner of the ALA Alex Award 2015, Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2014, Guardian Top Read of 2014, New York Times Book Review Top 10 2014, N° 2 Best Read 2014 Amazon …