Anthony Doerr‘s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (published by Scribner in 2014) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and received the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Clearly, you do not need my recommendation for a novel with two of the most distinguished awards in literature, but I’ll give it to you anyway. In one word, this novel is divine.
I recently completed ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE but am already eager to read it again. It doesn’t help I read it too fast the first time, but I couldn’t help myself. Regardless, this is the kind of novel to be read more than once to appreciate fully the genius of the writing. It’s the kind of literary creation you’ll want to make a seasonal experience and is already being called a classic.
It is August 1944, two months after the Allies mounted the largest offensive since the outbreak of World War II. Sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a Parisian refugee, is living in the small coastal village of Saint-Malo, only twenty-five miles from the spearhead of the invasion. She is sightless and alone in a house at Number 4 rue Vauborel – the place where the entire story and timeline will eventually focalize.
Four blocks away, eighteen-year-old Werner Pfennig, a German radioman, takes refuge in the basement of the L’hôtel des Abeilles as the Allies begin to bomb Saint-Malo, the final German stronghold in northwestern France.
With the stage set, Doerr quickly takes the reader back to 1934, when Marie–Laure still has her sight and lives four blocks from the National Museum of Natural History where her father, Daniel LeBlanc, works as the principal locksmith. It is a time of peace where combat is not yet a reality to those still healing from the First World War.
Marie-Laure grows up sheltered and doted up, but her father’s home education and preparation for living sightless in a sighted world arms her with the skills she’ll need to survive the years ahead.
Young Werner lives with his sister Jutta in the Children’s House orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. Small for his age, he has a mind for math, physics and electronics well beyond his years. At eight-years-old Werner takes apart and repairs his first radio. The music and voices emanating through the tiny headset open his mind to the broad possibilities life has to offer – not only because of his natural abilities but from the world itself beyond his small corner.
Though Werner grows up in a culture of brutality and intolerance, his tenuous hold on humanity remains grounded by the love of his sister and the woman who runs the orphanage, as well as fellow cadet Frederick – a delicate yet strong-willed boy who refuses to disobey his parents but is willing to disobey his superiors in the face of atrocity.
Told in segments, the bulk of the story is broken down into eleven parts which shoot back and forth between the major characters from the start of the war up to the end. With perfect synchronicity, their stories brilliantly converge to one moment in space and time where each character’s actions and thoughts are revealed at once.
This novel is filled with the tragic history of both sides of those torn apart by the war; the architecture of radio science through Werner’s perception and the architecture of the world through Marie-Laure’s senses; the courageousness of children, citizens and soldiers; the magic of a small town; and the curse of a diamond.
While reading this novel, I was reminded of another – my favorite science fiction tale, ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card. Both tell the story of a boy with advanced and unique talents who are used by a powerful military organization to crush their opposition. While Werner is aware of how the information he feeds his superiors is being used, he attempts to blind himself to the violence. Comforting himself with the fact he is not the one pulling the actual trigger, he is able to function – until the death of “innocents” due to a mistake he makes begins to haunt him.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE shows life is about choice. But choices made in wartime lead to either devastating or heroic actions – sometimes both ending with the same consequence. Werner and Marie-Laure initially make self-preservation choices, though neither is happy nor comfortable doing so. Marie-Laure’s sightlessness of her surroundings and Werner’s blindness to his guilt are burdens they must overcome. Marie-Laure is the first to perform self-sacrificing deeds under the influence of her great-uncle’s housekeeper, and eventually, Werner follows his own conscience, rather than that of the Third Reich.
Anthony Doerr writes ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE with a style I greatly admire. It’s clean and concise while being lyrical and inventively descriptive at the same time. His breakdown of the chapters is unconventional, but I quickly adapted and appreciated the literal pacing. If I had to nitpick one thing out of the novel, I’d say I wish the story had ended on the word “key,” although the chapter on Frederick is pensive and lovely.