All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction is one of the best books I have read in the last decade. In the past, I have struggled getting through some Pulitzer winning books due to their beautifully written albeit slow burning plots but not this one. Perhaps it is the fact that there are more than 180 chapters – most of which are a page long and none more than 5 pages leaving lots of “white space”. More likely, it is the portrayal of the two main characters, Marie Laure LeBlanc– a blind girl from Paris – and Werner Pfennig, a young German orphan swept up in the army of the Third Reich. The story takes place predominately during WWII with flashbacks to their respective childhoods and closes out in 2014.
Marie Laure becomes blind at the age of 6 and her Father spends his life trying to compensate for that. He builds miniature models of both her neighborhood in Paris and later in St. Malo so she can learn to navigate the streets on her own. Werner is an orphan who shows a remarkable talent for radio mechanics and lands up at an elite Nazi school before he travels to the front lines and then to St. Malo. Marie’s father is arrested and she lives with her recluse uncle and his housekeeper who becomes a surrogate mother for her until she succumbs to illness. Marie’s uncle becomes active in the Resistance while Warner continues to monitor radio signals for the Nazis. Warner and Marie’s stories finally converge near the end of the book as the Allies invade France and the German occupation ends.
The story goes back and forth between characters and dates. For some, that may be distracting but with the short chapters, I always felt in control of who was where when and what they were doing. The author is successful in his stated strategy of telling a story about WWII that is not black and white (nor focused at all on the Holocaust). Anthony Doerr is concerned that as the remaining people that remember the war die, the only understanding of it will be “the good guys vs. the bad guys”. One sees in Werner in particular, layers of grey. He starts out as good as his sister Jutta but is thrown into circumstances that cause him to make decisions that aren’t as noble as those he assumes she would make. Despite getting caught up in the Third Reich and all that came with it, he does save Marie Laure near the end of the novel showing that his humanity had not been completely stripped away.
The title refers to the vast electromagnetic field of light that we cannot see but is also a metaphor for much that happens in the book. The layers of meaning, the exquisite prose and the story itself all make for a wonderful book that can be read over and over. The characters are deep and fully developed and the lyrical writing is not over the top at all given the short chapters. It is also fascinating to me that the book took 10 years to write because of all the research that the author had to do which is unusual for a work of fiction. I love the relatively recent focus on research for both the narrative non-fiction style and whatever we will call this new genre of fiction – I believe it makes for a much richer reading experience.