This is without any doubt one of the best things I will read this year. Beautiful, readable, moving, glorious.
I’m wary of WWII novels. It feels sometimes like every aspect of that war has been raked over. The stories can still be shocking, but there doesn’t often seem anything new to say, just all those horrors to pick over, often for no good reason.
In fact, there’s a lot I don’t like when it comes to war novels, and this one managed to combine a lot of my objections: it has plucky/brave/smart children as key characters; the characters ultimately find the courage to do what they have to; and it’s a war-time love story, which these days are usually blah (though, to be fair, it’s only a kind of love story).
So this one was a surprise several times over. Because all of those things are true. But it’s so beautifully written that all of those things are not only important, they’re perfectly right.
The chapters are short and swap efficiently between the two key characters: Marie-Laure, who is blind and cared for by her father who is lock-keeper for a French museum; and Werner, who is an orphan, brought up in a German children’s home with his sister, where the discovery of a radio awakens an aptitude and passion for science and for mechanics. As the war progresses, both face challenges to their beliefs and their sense of what is right and good.
For all the bleak subject matter, this is not a depressing book. It’s quite a skill to keep a story like this believably bitter-sweet rather than dark and Doerr manages it without it ever feeling contrived. The worst of the war happens slightly off-stage, until there is nowhere left to go for either.
Everything about it works. Even the circumstances that connect these two makes sense, in its own way.
It was a very worthy winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
If This Is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by Sarah Helm
The camp was initially set aside for all kinds of female undesirables, mostly German: prostitutes, lesbians, political activists, gypsies, women who had physical or mental disabilities. As the war continued, there were many Polish, French and Russian prisoners. Most died there, though no one is really sure exactly how many.
It’s a long book. Helm spent a long time finding out the names of women who were sent there or worked there as guards, unearthing their letters and diaries and accounts. She tracked down survivors, and for some, it was the first time they had ever told what happened. She dug through only recently available accounts from sources that were lost behind the Iron Curtain for decades. She went through the accounts of war trials related to Ravensbrück.
And then she filled the book with those women’s voices, mostly unembellished. Hearing it in their own words makes it both very personal and gives it enormous power.
I can’t recall ever being as moved by a book. I cried at times, and there were times I had to put it down. You get to know these women, and what happens to them is very hard to take. What was almost most surprising is how little of this story had ever been told before.
I think the length and the subject matter put people off. But this book is magnificent and should be read.