[This is a journal in 5 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
9 October 2015
Zero and One
Zero is Zero-hour, although I don’t think Doerr ever calls it that. We’re in St Malo on an early August night in 1944, and the US bombers are almost there. We already know from one of the epigraphs that fewer than 200 of the 800-odd buildings in the town will remain standing by the end of it. The ‘Jewel of Brittany’ will be a ruin, and we have no idea yet how many will be killed. What will happen to the Girl – she has a chapter of her own – in a room at the top of one of the houses? And the Boy, in fact an 18-year-old private in the German army? He is making his way to the cellar of a hotel while the eight gunners above him – none of whom, we are told, will survive the night – load and fire off shells that deafen everyone. Doerr lets us inside the heads of different participants, down to one of the American bombardiers counting seconds before releasing the first payload….
The girl is blind, and is running her hands over a scale model of the town. She finds her own house, if that’s what it is, and releases a mechanism that reveals it to have a compartment containing a ‘stone’ the size of a pigeon’s egg. It is pear-shaped, and we can only guess what it might be. (It isn’t difficult.) She is alone, ignoring the warnings that have sent most other people to shelter. The stone must be really important. The boy…. All I can remember about him is that his hair is white. File that one away for later.
Not much later, in fact, because we meet him again in One. Doerr continues with the parallel stories, but this time Marie-Laure and Werner, the same pair, are ten years younger and living in different countries. He is a quiet, under-sized boy living with his younger sister in an orphanage in Germany. Marie-Laure is six, already going blind, and is the daughter of the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The lives of these two really do seem to be parallel. There’s science of different kinds in each story, and a fascination with precision-made things. For Werner it’s a facility for fixing radios – he finds a crude, damaged early version of one and easily gets it working – and an equally natural aptitude for the mathematical sciences. In Marie-Laure’s story her father is the practical one, keeper of 12,000 locks and maker not only of finely crafted boxes with hidden compartments, but of a scale model of the neighbourhood that allows Marie-Laure to learn the local geography.
We’re in the 1930s – One takes us right up to 1940, in fact – so we know where this is all leading. The father of Werner and his sister was killed in the local coalmine which is where, the local Nazi leadership have told all the boys, every one of them will go to work when they are fifteen. They should be proud to work for the powerhouse of the Fatherland… etc. At first, only two or three boys seem to be interested in the new youth movement, but soon membership is compulsory. And so on. Werner is happy to let it all happen around him, until an inspector visits and he is forbidden from reading any more science books. He will be down the mine soon, where he won’t need that kind of knowledge. On a better radio he now has he and his sister listen, illicitly, to a science lecture in French – their teacher from Alsace has taught them – in which visible light is described as a negligible section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Ah.
Marie-Laure has to deal with life without even that. Yet, despite the blindness that becomes total when she is about seven, she lives a charmed life. Her father is loving and practical, making her birthday gift boxes and warning her not to believe in superstitions like the curse attached to the famous diamond, the size of a pigeon’s egg, that the museum is about to put on display. Ever the loving teacher, he has her guide him through streets she only knows from his scale model, every Sunday over many months, until she can always find her way home. For her, Doerr has imagined a world of smells, sounds and textures felt by touch or through the feet. It’s a sensory world for her. She wasn’t always blind, of course, and she imagined rich visual landscapes of the mind. She even seems to develop a kind of kinaesthesia, imagining moods as colours. Sometimes her father is one colour, sometimes another.
I don’t quite believe any of it. But never mind.
By 1940 there are crises approaching for both of them. Werner has only a year left before he will have to go down the pit. Meanwhile Marie-Laure’s father and all the other museum employees are having to face the truth of what they hadn’t been able to believe: the Nazis really are preparing to march into Paris. For Werner there’s a fairy godmother in the form of a local commandant who needs a radio repairing. He hears of Werner’s reputation – he’s been doing this for the locals since he was about ten – and, sure enough, the odd-looking boy with white hair fixes it in minutes. Does he know that there are schools for practical boys like him, asks the commandant, where they can learn how to do important work for the Fatherland? He didn’t, but he does now.
Marie-Laure’s father, exhausted from helping to salvage the museum’s treasures, tells her to pack a bag. No, she can’t take her beloved braille copies of Jules Verne, each of which took him a year to save up for. He will take her to the house of somebody he knows… except he sees it’s on fire. (Doerr switches to his point of view, or anybody else’s, as it suits. A few pages later, it’s how we find out that he is carrying either the big diamond or a decoy copy. There are four all told, including the real one.) And at the station it soon becomes clear that they won’t be able to get a train. Nobody can get a train. They start walking. How far, Papa? A day, if we can get any kind of lift, but for tonight, we’ll sleep here. Here, Papa? Are there beds? No, the grass beneath us will be our bed. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. We know they’ll make it, and that Werner will make it to the science school, or whatever it is…. And I’ve just noticed that Two carries on from where Zero left off. Ok.
Two and Three
The bombs being dropped on St Malo are incendiaries, so soon there are fires blazing with enough heat to draw objects ‘bigger than a cat’ into the heart of the flames. Doerr doesn’t say if people, definitely bigger than cats, are included. Marie-Laure in her sixth-storey room and Werner in his cellar both survive, although his colleague tells him there is now no way out of the cellar. The descriptions are… ok. WW2 settings are so common in fiction from the European side of the Atlantic it’s difficult to be surprised by accounts of bombing raids. Marie-Laure’s blindness, as ever, forces a different slant on things but, somehow, not quite different enough. She doesn’t even know what’s happening in the house beneath her, never mind the town. I’m sure she’ll work it out eventually. Perhaps in the next even-numbered section.
In Three the narrative plods along. Marie-Laure and her father get to St Malo by way of another small town, where they find that the wealthy collector that he was supposed to leave the diamond with has left the country. His house is being routinely looted when they arrive, and the weary travellers have to think again. A stay with his shell-shocked uncle in St Malo seems like a good idea, and they eventually get there, for delicious omelettes and preserved peaches. Doerr doesn’t like things to be too uncomfortable. But he has done his research, so we get a convincing enough account of what life must have been like in the first few weeks and months of occupation in a small town. It’s all incredibly mundane. In St Malo there’s still enough fresh produce for the fat, sweaty perfumer to run a profitable trade by taking cases of meat to Paris. He is a fairly stock unlikeable character, and we are not at all surprised when, spotting Marie-Laure’s father taking careful measurements of streets and houses, he thinks he’ll be able to get some reward money for turning in a spy. And, some chapters later (plod, plod), Papa gets arrested. By the end of the section he’s on a train heading towards Germany.
Long before this the uncle, Etienne, turns out to be another tame scientist for Marie-Laure to spend time with. He’s agoraphobic, but he’s great with twelve-year-old girls and is a natural storyteller. He has spent his time learning all about her first love, natural history and – you couldn’t make it up – short-wave radios. And guess what. (You won’t, because it’s ridiculous.) The broadcasts that Werner and his sister used to listen to were recorded on to phonograph discs by Etienne and his brother before WW1. Etienne has made a high-powered transmitter that even his housekeeper doesn’t know about, that he keeps behind a little trapdoor in the attic. This is how the introductory science lectures read by his brother are routinely broadcast. It’s a way for poor old Etienne to keep alive the memory of his brother, Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who was killed in the first War when her father was still a child.
The transmitter will no doubt have a part to play in the unfolding story of her father’s arrest, which happens in this section’s final chapter. It won’t go down well with the Nazis when they move aside the heavy wardrobe Etienne and Marie-Laure have placed in front of the trapdoor after all radios have been confiscated. Etienne didn’t mean to disobey the embargo, but he was in one of his locked-in phases when it was announced and the deadline has passed by the time he’s emerging again. Doerr likes to make people’s behaviour seem feasible. It’s just a pity about the rest of it.
Meanwhile Marie-Laure’s father keeps himself sane by making a model of St Malo for her. After some months – she has counted off 120-odd days before the end of this section – he has completed it. It isn’t a neat job. Well, it wouldn’t be if he’s had to make something like seven or eight models every single day for all that time. (Do you believe it? No, nor do I.) And he constantly worries about the diamond. He is no expert but, when he has examined it, it seems to have exactly the flame-like interior that has made the real one famous. And, in spite of his rationalist beliefs, he can’t help wondering if it is exerting its terrible influence on his life. The small print of the curse is that whist the keeper of the jewel doesn’t die, terrible things happen to those around him…. I kept being reminded of a Dan Brown novel, because of the way the reader is asked to swallow this preposterous stuff, and how reliant the author is both on transparently deliberate plotting and on things. The diamond, of course, but also the coincidences, the populist science, the transmitter. And it’s still only late 1940, with over 300 pages to go before we find where it’s all leading. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Meanwhile… Werner takes a test, gets a place at the school, finds the regime hard and alienating – all that hard-man stuff the Nazis go in for – but routinely spouts the requisite Heil Hitlers along with the rest. What else would he do? He writes letters to his beloved sister Jutta, the one he admires for her greater strength – only just before he left did she forgive him for destroying his short-wave radio – and he sometimes wonders what she would do in a particular situation. We see how intolerant the bullying staff is of anybody who doesn’t fit like a cog in the machine. Or, to use the readymade propaganda image one of them comes out with, they must be as unthinking and as unstoppable as a volley of bullets. And we see how weakness is treated. The bully of a ‘commandant’ forces a random boy to choose the one who is weakest. The rest of the boys get to race this chosen one and, if they catch him, to beat him up. Inevitably, this happens to Frederick, the only boy Werner counts as a friend, and Werner wonders what Jutta would do as the other boys take turns to whip him with the commandant’s rubber hose. Frederick takes a great interest in – guess – natural history. Specifically, he loves birds, but anything living fascinates him. Not a good tendency to be saddled with in Germany in 1940.
However. Werner’s abilities are recognised by Hauptmann, the mandatory sympathetic teacher. When the boys are given an hour to make a simple circuit from random-seeming parts, Werner does it in seconds. And then he makes about three other things in minutes. Then, when Hauptmann gives him a calculation to do, and Werner explains that he only knows what he’s taught himself, we know where it’s going. Doerr has made one of his main characters a mathematical genius. Soon he has been set to work every evening to do detailed topographical calculations based on triangulations. It’s anybody’s guess why Hauptmann, who is clearly in communication with some very important people in the hierarchy, can’t ask trained mathematicians to do this. Maybe it’s illicit or classified information. Maybe Hauptmann, not an unlikeable man, isn’t really a Nazi at all. Maybe – and I really do believe this is a possibility in a novel like this – he’s interested in the source of the science broadcasts.
There’s one other thread. Occasionally, as when we are with the perfumer as he makes his squalid little calculations, Doerr will give us a chapter outside the run of his two main narratives. Another unlikeable character is the Viennese dealer in precious stones, a man as venal and unlikeable as the perfumer. He even has a comedy name to go with his little vices…. Pride is one of them: he considers himself as skilled as any ‘Aryan’ jeweller in the city. Ah. By the end of the section he has been made a Nazi sergeant, and has been assigned to the task of cataloguing the valuable objects in the Natural History Museum in Paris. Earlier, Doerr has slipped in some background information about Hitler’s project to create a kilometre-long museum of mankind’s greatest achievements – in fact, of course, a depository for all the looted treasures of Europe. What von Rumpel really wants to know about is – guess. The museum bosses stall, all day. But von Rumpel is patient, and simply waits, forcing them to wait with him. Like Doerr, he likes to keep any suggestion of real violence well off-stage, but after a veiled threat from him that he knows where the director’s sons and daughter go to school, he gets his way. From an elaborately-designed box straight out of The Da Vinci Code – it’s one of the locksmith’s, obviously – they produce a diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg.
What von Rumpel thinks of it we don’t yet know. Doerr ends the chapter before the (self-proclaimed) greatest expert in Vienna has a chance to look at it.
Four and Five
We knew from the start that the 500 or more pages of this novel would be taking us from the mid-1930s right up to (and beyond) the bombing raid on St Malo in August 1944. I’m rarely impressed when an author lays it all out for us so transparently – all I can think of is the trudge ahead. Now, in the even-numbered sections, we’ve reached the day after the bombing raid. In the odd-numbered sections we’ve reached the summer of 1942. Are we nearly there yet?
No, obviously, not with over 200 pages still to go. We realise – I couldn’t help giving a kind of inner sigh – that von Rumpel is in St Malo on the morning after the raid, and that he’s headed towards the tall house. Its windows are out, but it’s still standing. Inside, Marie-Laure wonders whether her great-uncle has survived. We realise during Five why she isn’t wondering about the housekeeper, Madame Manec: she dies of a chronic chest condition in the summer following severe pneumonia in the winter of 1942. Von Rumpel is also ill: he has something wrong with him, presumably cancer, that is snaking through his body towards his heart. If there is a symbolic aspect to this, I can’t be bothered with it just now. In the cellar, Werner is still stuck with the man I forgot to mention last time turns out to have been his oversized minder in the science school. This is the giant Frank Volkheimer, who is now attempting, with his bare hands, to break through what might be tons of rubble blocking their only exit. Meanwhile, a colleague of theirs has either just died of his injuries or is about to. So it goes.
It’s some days since I read Five…. Would it be fair to say that nothing massively surprising happens in any of the threads? Marie-Laure is upset about her father’s disappearance, after he’d promised to be back from his trip to the museum in ten days at most. She mopes for something like four weeks, until Mme Manec tells her they are going for a walk. The sea seems to be less than 100 yards from the house, and… and it’s a glorious release for Marie-Laure. At some point she is taken to what seems to be a smugglers’ cave by one of the local characters, a vagrant with a heart of gold. This is around the time when he begins to pass secret messages from the little resistance group that Mme Menec has set up with some local women…. It strikes me that everybody in Marie-Laure’s world has a heart of gold. Etienne might be a bit useless, but even he is trying his best.
And, eventually, Marie-Laure gets a letter from her father. He tells her about life in a German prison, and you can guess how he pretends they eat the most delicious food, complete with fine puddings. Tiresome man. I think there are two of these letters before the local gendarmerie make Mme Manec surrender them. He’s already written that his ‘angel’ won’t be able to deliver any more. The gendarmes, if that’s what they really are, search the house and don’t find the trapdoor. It’s like fiction for young adults. Bad things happen, but not too bad, somehow. Oh, and in his second and final letter, Marie-Laure’s father tells her to look in Uncle’s house (or something). We know what he means from the novel’s opening section… although when exactly he decided not to take the diamond with him to the museum is anybody’s guess. Maybe he thought he might never get there?
Mme Manec, tireless in her efforts to undermine the occupying army’s work despite being in her 70s, is just as tireless in bringing Marie-Laure out of herself. Soon she can let the girl go out alone, because she’s started to use the model to familiarise herself with the streets of the town. But there has to be some jeopardy, even in the most pedestrian of plots, and we get it. The vagrant disappears – they seem surprised by this, although having been under occupation for so long they must have realised that such people were always going to be targets. Then Mme Manec falls ill and, after not too much suffering – nobody wants the reader to become too upset – she dies. Marie-Laure is left with poor Etienne, but they manage. She just wishes he was a bit stronger… but she’s only young. What would she know?
In Germany, things are as you would expect. Werner continues to be made uneasy by everybody and everything. Frederick takes him to meet his rich mother in Berlin – we have to read between the lines, just a in a YA novel, to realise she’s having affairs offstage – and he is instinctively appalled by her anti-Semitism as she looks forward to getting the bigger flat currently occupied by the old ‘Jewess’ at the top of the house. Back in the school, Frederick’s victim status is confirmed when he is beaten so badly he suffers brain damage. He’s a drooling shell when Werner visits – which he does when he is told that Hauptmann, now working in Berlin, has discovered he is really eighteen (he isn’t, obviously) and should have left the school by now. Frederick and his mother have just moved into the upstairs flat, and a fat lot of good it’s done them. That’s what morality feels like in YA-land.
At the school Hauptmann – and you can believe this if you want to – had been getting Werner to help him develop electronic equipment for sale. We see them testing their triangulating tracking devices out in the snow – they’ve got it down to minutes after a few attempts – and Hauptmann is apparently making plenty of money from his protégé’s work. Hauptmann does that thing beloved of all fictional scientists working for the bad guys, telling Werner ‘it’s only about the numbers’ (or something similar), as though to deny any culpability. No surprise there, then. Now in Berlin, he has presumably concocted the story about Werner’s age in order to get him there. It will be good for Werner to be leaving the school, as the regime becomes ever more barbaric and the recruits become ever more gung-ho. All the boys except Werner behave like unthinking Nazis, believe every word of the propaganda they are fed, and sing the songs without a hint of irony.
I’m still not believing a word of it. I assume Werner will not die in the cellar, although I might be wrong. And as for von Rumpel… will he get the jewel, the one he has apparently spent four years tracking down? Will Marie-Laure outwit him, somehow? Or will his snaky illness get to his heart just before he can throttle the blind girl? As if I care.
Six, Seven and Eight
Seven isn’t quite so long as previous odd-numbered sections. Perhaps Doerr is regretting his self-imposed structure and wants to speed things up a bit, and he takes us all the way to the spring of 1944. Werner’s thread lurches into Russia and back again as he can only guess at what we privileged 21st Century readers know for certain: opening up the Eastern Front was Hitler’s biggest mistake. He hasn’t gone to work with Hauptmann in Berlin, because his former teacher has decided to make sure instead that at least one of the Reich’s transceivers will be operated by somebody who understands it. In St Malo… Etienne somehow finds the strength to stop being useless, and he decides he’s going to help the resistance. Of course he is, because Doerr isn’t going to give us any main characters whose ethical principles might in any way be compromised. Marie-Laure collects loaves from the baker, which contain folded slips of paper bearing coded messages in the form of strings of numbers. Etienne builds the false back into the wardrobe that we saw Marie-Laure slide open in Four, and he takes his beloved transmitter out of mothballs. Do you believe it? Neither do I.
But I don’t think Doerr is interested in conventional plausibility any more. He likes his little synchronicities, as we’ve seen, and the structure demands the big grand-daddy of all of them as absolutely everything and everyone has to come together. By the time we’ve reached the end of Eight, with Werner still trapped in his cellar, Doerr now also has Marie-Laure trapped, but at the top of her uncle’s house. It’s von Rumpel who is stopping her leaving her hidey-hole, as he crashes around the place looking for the stone which he’s finally homed in on this particular day – after something like 1400 days of looking. Werner has got nothing to listen to but static, until – you couldn’t make it up – Marie-Laure, fearing that the world is a wasteland outside the house, begins to transmit her fears. He doesn’t know it, but he’s listening to the grand-daughter of the man whose science lectures he used to hear all those years ago, beamed from maybe only a hundred or so metres away. And that’s not all. Today, of all days, the Rumpmeister feels he can’t live without the diamond, literally. His mysterious illness first showed itself when he became the Fuhrer’s gem-finder general but it’s only now, 1400 days later, that it’s really catching up with him. As he feels the morphine failing to have the desired effect, he’s beginning to hallucinate. He thinks that only the goddess inside the diamond can reach into his failing heart and save him.
I think I’ve already mentioned that this stuff might work in fiction written for young adults. But I’m beginning to feel I need the goddess of the diamond to give me strength to finish reading the damned thing.
But I’m jumping the gun. Fresh out of school (anything but fresh, in fact) Werner is posted to a radio tracking unit with Volkheimer as the NCO in command. There are other men, including the one who dies in the cellar, Berndt. Neumann 1, Neumann 2 and others do what soldiers do (brag, wait, complain) until they get killed, somewhere offstage. Werner tracks signals, and it’s Volkheimer’s job to take the resistance radio operators by surprise and kill them. The equipment they seize usually isn’t worth having and, predictably, we are privy to Werner’s unspoken doubts about the usefulness of anything. The people they kill are the enemy, right? He’s not sure, especially, and in the most clunky way possible, when a seven-year-old girl is killed near Vienna. He’d been watching her on a swing singing a song, just like Jutta he thinks, and now his mistake – he’s not been feeling well, as the tide of war sweeps over them and they eat food that isn’t fit for dogs – leads to one of the Neumanns shooting the girl and her innocent mother. You can’t accuse Doerr of subtlety.
Werner is feeling guilty about not having written to Jutta for a year. She’s managed to get at least one letter to him, and she somehow remains a model of probity and good sense for him. I’m not sure how, because she was only eleven years old when he left. And… and maybe that’s enough about Werner for now. Except by April or May 1944 there are reports of radio transmissions emanating from the north-west coast of France. One of the possible sources listed, of course, is St Malo.
Marie-Laure has been getting Etienne to re-read to her the letters her father sent. She wonders, again, what he might possibly have meant about her looking inside her great-uncle’s house. By August 1944, of course, we know she understands. She has lifted the model of it from the miniature city her father made, and it’s now in the attic with her. Von Rumpel has also realised, having found the model of St Malo, but ‘inverted’. Whereas in the real city the house stands tall amongst ruins, here there is just a blank space in an otherwise intact townscape. As so often, I’m not quite sure what to make of Doerr’s little felicities and dark mirrorings.
(Now I think of it, Werner often thinks of the fantastical cityscapes Jutta used to draw. Paris was one of the cities she drew, but as imagined by someone who had never seen it. It’s another virtual version of a place that exists, but not as presented. As the reader knows, but none of the characters do, Paris will be left intact by both the Nazis and the Allies. Berlin, on the other hand, a great city when Werner visited the first time, is already a pinched, grubby version of itself when he goes to visit the shell that was once Frederick. Another ruin to go with everything else – although in Werner’s dreams the old Frederick still talks to him of the natural world he loves. Berlin, as the reader well knows, will soon be as much of a ruin as Frederick and St Malo. I notice that some later chapters are set in Berlin in 1945. Oh dear.)
So it’s all coming together. Werner is heading for St Malo with his transceiver switched on, von Rumpel has ruled out the three other versions of the missing diamond, and I notice that a later chapter has the title The Synchronicity of Instants. Will von Rumpel’s time run out exactly at the instant when he is about to pounce on poor Marie-Laure? It wouldn’t surprise me: his allotted four months will be up by the beginning of August, and he isn’t feeling terribly well as he ransacks the house beneath the attic where she hides.
Nine to Thirteen – to the end
Doerr sticks with his structure until, as we knew they would, the time-lines collide. This happens in Nine – during which, in fact, time become a little hazy. Werner reaches the coast in May and, at some point, he picks up Etienne’s signal. He pretends not to have heard, because he recognises the accent: the sixty-something Etienne sounds enough like the recordings of his thirty-something brother for Werner to assume they are the same person. And isn’t that the same piano music playing? (Yes it is, and it’s Clair de Lune. Save that for later.) By this time, he is feeling so confused and guilty he keeps his discovery a secret from Volkheimer. Doerr is setting things up for that Synchronicity of Instants chapter… but I’m jumping the gun again. Which von Rumpel isn’t able to do, unluckily for him.
On the way through France Werner imagines the little Viennese girl floating around, keeping them company. Doerr likes to keep imagined realities as actual as the disintegrating world his characters are living in, so Werner’s hallucinations, like von Rumpel’s, carry as much weight as, say, the rules of army life. In fact, now I think of it, Doerr makes absolutely nothing of what life as a private or NCO in Hitler’s army might really have been like. He’s much more interested in the interior lives of his characters, I suppose. That’s where Werner – and Marie-Laure, and Etienne, and von Rumpel – really live. So, as Nine morphs into Ten, the model of a house can take on a life of its own as these interior realities come to be shared. Marie-Laure sometimes imagines tiny versions of herself and Etienne (and Mme Manec) inside the model, von Rumpel searches for it like the fanatical collector he has become. And, after Werner has saved Marie-Laure from von Rumpel – hands up anybody who didn’t spot that one coming – she gives him the model, not to keep but to drop into the ocean. There had been a lot of ocean in Nine, with Werner as listening in to Marie-Laure broadcasting the final chapters of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This, of course, isn’t the two-part braille copy her father gave to her all those years ago (spread over two of her birthdays), but a copy that Etienne has been able to conjure up through ‘friends’ who know about such things. Yeh, sure.
It’s in these final sections, in the last hundred or so pages of this 500-page novel, that I began to understand both why it has been possible until now to dismiss it as fiction aimed at young adults, and to see what Doerr is trying to achieve far beyond that. The plot devices, the endless props, the predictable selflessness of the main characters and even the violence that is never centre-stage all seem, to me, calculated to make it safe enough for readers whose minds aren’t yet fully formed. But in Ten and beyond, as Doerr finally leaves the twin-track time structure behind, things begins to change. They become more interesting.
It’s Captain Nemo in Verne’s novel who finally brings Werner and Marie-Laure together. The narrator and the captain have survived being trapped in even worse circumstances than either of them, deep underwater and entangled in the tentacles of giant sea creatures. The narrator has come through – but has Nemo? The ending leaves the question unanswered, but what is certain – and you might have guessed it by now – is the power of scientific endeavour to overcome the differences between people. ‘May the contemplation of so many wonders extinguish for ever the spirit of vengeance! May the judge disappear, and the philosopher continue the peaceful exploration of the sea…!’ And so on. Well, which of the main characters in this novel wouldn’t agree with that?
Anyway. As Werner had contemplated death in the cellar through dehydration, Volkheimer had used one of their remaining grenades to blast a way out. It works, of course, and Werner is able to set out looking for the girl with the voice. He finds her a few moments after von Rumpel has also found her – maybe we should excuse the convenient synchronicity, as both only emerge from their hiding places once the story is over – and is able to overpower and shoot him. So it goes. I think that it’s during the night they spend in the house, entirely innocently, that Clair de Lune becomes symbolic. Marie-Laure can’t see moonlight, but Werner can, and it is given all the metaphorical significance it usually receives when a boy and girl look at it. Next day they are outside – by another lucky chance, a ceasefire has been announced, to start at noon – and she takes him to the sea-cave, locked behind its ancient metal gate. Von Rumpel had followed her there in Nine, realising her connection with the locksmith, but she had locked herself in. So many locks…. I’ll come back to that, because Duerr does. She tells Werner to sink the model house in the sea, making sure it will never surface again. He tells her he has done it, they leave, and he parts from her in some of Etienne’s old clothes. Has he fallen in love with her? Apparently so.
Could the novel have ended there or, perhaps, with a coda detailing their reunion after the war and a scientific life spent together? It could, and that’s what I was expecting. But Werner hasn’t been well, and his luck has finally run out. Confused through not being able to keep any food down, he wanders away from a POW hospital tent. There’s a minefield outside, and he disappears in an explosion of earth. There are codas, but not the ones I was expecting. It’s as though Doerr has decided that the dice have been falling just a little too favourably – Frederick’s fate is the exception – and things become darker for a while.
Eleven, set in 1945, gives us Marie-Laure’s story in Paris as she waits in vain for her father’s return. Etienne, apparently cured of his agoraphobia following his St Malo experiences – he made his first tentative steps to get a loaf from the baker’s following Marie-Laure’s pursuit by von Rumpel – is able to rent the old flat where she and her father used to live. The old museum crew become her friends all over again…. But in Berlin things are different for Jutta, the other girls from the orphanage and the teacher who had taught them French. Three Russians come and Doerr, without going into details, spells out that they are raped one by one.
In Twelve the main character is Jutta. It’s 1974, and Volkheimer has received some of Werner’s things from a Canadian warehouse. He is still a giant, but a taciturn loner clearly affected by the war. He is able to find Jutta, and… and so on. I’m reminded of Dan Brown again as she, now a maths teacher, takes her young son on a journey first to St Malo and then to Paris. Where she finds… Marie-Laure, now a doctor of zoology at the same museum specialising, of course, in the marine creatures she got to know first as museum specimens and then alive in her cave. Bless.
Finally comes Thirteen, a single short chapter set in 2014. Marie-Laure has a grandson now, and it’s winter. And it’s time for him to find out what’s in the little model house. It’s… the key to Marie-Laure’s cave of molluscs from all those years ago. Werner must have put it in there, because she had given the key to him. Meaning… what, exactly? That life is unlocked by science, not the wealth represented by a supposedly cursed diamond? Which, in case you’re wondering, is returning to the earth it emerged from after all those countless aeons. The one thing Werner didn’t save, it is slowly being covered by barnacles and tidal silt in Marie-Laure’s cave. So what will remain of us is… science, I guess. But there’s love in there too, despite what war does to people. There are children and grandchildren and the glorious fruits of human endeavour in adversity.… If Doerr hadn’t already quoted from the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea he could have done it now.
So, worthy of a Pulitzer? In my opinion, no. I’ve said more than enough about the absence of jeopardy, and, let’s face it, the absence of any really adult take on the horrors of war. I never, ever, get any real sense of the imminent danger of death that must have existed during these times. I would have no objection to the novel being read in schools, either in the USA or any other country, because it covers historical territory that might otherwise be ignored or forgotten. But I would hope that any young adult reading it would understand that things were rarely as black-and-white as portrayed here. All the main characters, though not at all infallible, are on the side of the angels. And I think that to create a convincing mind-set for their characters must be the hardest thing for authors writing in a historical setting. I never believe that any of them were really born in the first half of the 20th Century or earlier, because everything about them seems too recognisable. It’s as though Werner, and Marie-Laure and Jutta (and the rest) are really travellers from our own time. Maybe it takes a Hilary Mantel (in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) to get it right.