I’m normally inclined to avoid World War II novels. It was the greatest cataclysm in human history but is there anything left to say about it?
Seventy years later what stories remain untold, what emotional territory untrod?
It’s why I’ve never read The Book Thief, despite my wife’s assurances that it’s fabulous. But my newly-minted book club wanted Doerr; and those stellar reviews and that Pulitzer win helped me overcome my reservations.
The story revolves around blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Hitler Youth conscript Werner Pfennig as they come of age on different sides of the conflict. Werner’s story grapples with the question: how did ordinary people become murderous Nazis? But Marie-Laure is the star of this show, her story of strength in the face of loss giving the novel its beating heart.
Then there’s the sadly unrealised third major character, Reinhold von Rumpel, a terminally ill Nazi hunting for the Sea of Flame, a priceless gem he believes has the power to save his life. It’s a compelling premise but here Doerr fumbles, giving von Rumpel precious little page time and reducing him to the role of cardboard villain and plot device.
The book’s too long although the short, sharp chapters keep the plot moving at a decent clip. It’s ultimately a fine novel – a beautifully-written page-turner – that perhaps inevitably falls a little short of the hype.
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