I know, this one’s been around for a while and I’m a little late.
All the light we cannot See garnered a Pulitzer Prize for New York Times Bestselling author Anthony Doerr. It’s not his first award, but it may be the most recognizable. My feelings about this book are <dramatic pause> complicated.
On the one hand I can appreciate it for the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that it is. On the other hand I found it a little tedious. So let’s get a few preliminary things out of the way. First, I avoided reading any reviews or opinions about this novel before I read it. I didn’t want any preconceived notions going in. Second, historical novels, especially those set in the middle of a war are not really my cup of tea. Third, I’m not a very patient person when it comes to getting to the point. That being said, I still appreciate it for what it is, a beautiful work of art in the form of words.
The story is about a blind French girl fleeing the war and a German boy drafted into the ranks of the German Nazi army. The convergence of their paths in occupied France is heartbreakingly beautiful as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Despite her blindness, 14-year-old Marie Laure lives in a world with rich and vibrant colors provided by her other senses and her glorious imagination. Her father nurtures her curiosity and builds up her independence every chance he gets. He tries to save her from the ravages of WWII by taking her to her great uncle’s house in the seaside city of Saint-Malo. Her father tries to protect her and help her understand her new surroundings. In the process, he is taken prisoner by the Germans. Losing the people who support her one by one, Marie does her best to survive the hardships of war as it inexorably marches toward her. Then there’s her father’s secret that she must keep safe, but should she?
Werner is an orphan recruited into a brutal branch of the Hitler youth army and torn from his only family, his sister. His childhood obsession with radios and other gadgets attracts the attention of a German engineer at the Nazi youth school. Soon he is out in the field tracking down forbidden radio signals all over Russia and Europe, which leads him to Saint-Malo where his world collides with Marie’s in the middle of the occupation of the city by German forces followed by its liberation by allied forces. Yet Werner’s punishing training never destroys the tenderness in his heart, perhaps causing him some extra pain.
I said that historical war stories are really not my thing whether fictional or not. However, I would still maintain that this one is heartbreakingly beautiful. Although the story jumps between characters and flashbacks at break-neck speed, I was usually able to follow fairly easily. The couple of times I was lost for a moment I kind of felt like it added to the tumultuous times I was reading about and caused me to sympathize. Especially with Marie.
Some have spoken about this book being full of “purple prose”, that is to say, ornate and extravagantly overly descriptive writing. In general, that may be true and a no, no for writers. BUT in this case, I think it works. All the Light We Cannot See couples beautifully flowing, vibrant, and colorful writing against the stark, chilling, and gruesome background of WWII in a way that is compelling and full of emotion. If no one ever broke the rules, we’d never know what freedom can feel like. The statement applies to life as much as it does to writing. The trick is, knowing when and how to do it.
I thought I’d be glad when this book was over. Yet in the end, it was one of those stories that left a kind of aching emptiness in its wake.