‘Werner likes to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls.’
‘It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.’ This is one of the two epigraphs that begins this poignant and delicately crafted novel. The words were spoken by Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Nazi propaganda machine during the Second World War. Such a quotation introduces us to significance of the radio during the war, but it only scratches the surface on its significance to the novel. From the single idea of a radio – its invisible waves that can cross borders and oceans – the novel sprawls outwards and entangles the lives of two children: blind Marie-Laure who lives in France, and Pfennig Werner, a German orphan whose talent for radio mechanics catches the notice of the Hitler Youth.
I really enjoyed this novel. The polyphonic narrative, flitting from character to character, kept me reading as multiple plot threads started to come together. Moreover, the way Doerr uses his motif of radio waves, invisible light, to guide and shape the various threads is masterful. Despite the heavy context of the work – writing about war is never a simple task – Doerr’s focus on the day to day details, the fragility of childhood, makes the story immediate, rather than a moment in the past. The brutal reality of war is demonstrated through the gradual erosion of normal domestic life so that when something suddenly violent happens – Frederick’s beating, for example – the feeling is horror but not shock. By dealing with both sides of the war, France and Germany, and by not dwelling too much on the specifics of what it meant to be on the Allies’ or the Nazi side, we’re invited to empathise with all the characters – from Madame Manec all the way to Volkheimer – a refreshing quality in a war novel.
With a Pultizer Prize for this novel, I look forward to reading more from Anthony Doerr.