Let me talk today about one of my most precious treasures. As a good treasured it fell into my hands by a simple coincidence. I was in Sydney, where I used to live, and as it always happens —it is still happening to me here in France—, when I cannot find books in Spanish I don’t know what to choose. I was randomly looking inside Harry Hartog, my favourite bookstore in Bondi, when I found it. Strange title, I thought. I then saw a note of recommendation classifying it as one of the best books in fiction. I bought it and left it in my own little library for two months. And when I finally took it I regret of having lost two months in which I should had known everything about this book.
And the story goes like this. It is 1944 in France. Europe is right in the II World War. Marie-Laure Le Blanc is a blind girl who lives in Paris along with her father, Daniel Le Blanc, who is employee at the Museum of Natural History. Daniel is a loving and intelligent father. He builds scale models of the city and their house to help his daughter to walk freely. They live alone and despite having no luxuries they are happy. Werner Pfenning, a young boy from Germany, with no parents, lives in an orphanage with his sister and Sister Frau Elena. Werner is a talented boy and once he found a broken radio, which he repaired. From then forward an entire world of possibilities opens to him and his sister, as they listen to a French science teacher every night, something that really attracts Werner.
The stories of this two characters gets outlined with a strange legend about a blue diamond named ‘The Sea of Flames’. Says the legend that thousands of years ago a prince fought to find it, but the stone obsessed him with all the power and status that he found. The stone was lost for a long time. Because of some coincides the stone reappears to be given in custody to Daniel Le Blanc.
In 1940 Germany invades France. Marie-Laure and her father run to the city of Saint Malo where they hide at Etienne’s house, who has been behind doors for many years because a spider phobia. Daniel builds another model to help his daughter navigate the house. Marie-Laure spends her time reading her favourite book ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ by Jules Verne. Etienne, who turns to be the French science teacher Werner Pfenning is anxiously listening on the radio, lets Marie- Laure talk about his favourite book.
Werner is recruited for his technical abilities at a nazi school and then gets incorporated at the army to help hunt the resistance. At the end Werner is posted in Saint Malo where the two destinies crossed definitely and crash along with the blue stone. They are not alone, Von Rumpel, a nazi officer and expert gemmologist obsessed with the diamond is stepping on their shoes every step of the way. He is evil and the antagonist of this story.
And why is this story a beautiful one? Because the author with these two different stories manages to discover a genuine empathy for these victims of the circumstances. But that empathy does not move us to pettiness, because it gets crossed with admiration for the extraordinary abilities that these two characters have. They are very different but they share very similar feelings towards life. The story shares a hint of sadness, yes, but it doesn’t let us submerge into the black waters without tons of hope. Although we can also be scared, for what can or might happen to Werner and Marie-Laure and it is because of that fear that we cannot let the book rest at any time.
The reader could think that I am recounting what happens in every book about the war. But it is not the case of this book, that although being set during the conflict, focuses more in the action and personalities of the characters and there it lies its success. And the cherry on the cake are those big chunks of extreme fiction that connect the dots between the doses of the reality and all the drama of the war. The Sea of Flames. The ambition for power. The fiction, mixed with the history, with the supernatural, with the human nature.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and number one for the New York Times Best Selling Books for 130 consecutive weeks. 100% recommended book.