Book Finished: April 27th, 2015
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
I normally find myself reading work from the young adult and fantasy realms. More often than not, these arenas are home to series of books. It is refreshing to step outside of those genres once in awhile and discover an amazing stand alone read. As I was reading this book last week, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This elegant, wonderful piece of literature is so deserving of the honor.
The book’s two central characters are Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young blind girl in France, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy living in an orphanage. We begin following them post WWI and pre WWII. Both face struggles as a child; Marie-Laure, who is being raised by her single father, completely loses her eyesight at age 6; Werner and his sister Jutta have lost both their parents and are facing a future of poverty where Werner will likely go to work in the same coal mines that killed their father.
Both children’s lives change dramatically with Hitler’s rise to power. Marie-Laure and her father are forced to flee Paris at the beginning of the German occupation and find their way to Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne’s home in Saint-Malo. Werner begins to discover that imagination and questions are dangerous, and that being selected for the boys’ school Schulpforta is both his ticket out of poverty and a morally confusing path. Both of their stories begin to intertwine from a distance, connected by war, the magic of radio, and a small blue stone that may or may not give the holder immortality.
The book is divided into 13 chapters, which mostly bounce between an August day in 1944 when Saint-Malo is liberated by American forces and the lead up to 1944. Within each chapter are smaller sections that portray snippets of each character’s life. Occasionally, another character such as Etienne, will get a snippet from their point of view. Doerr’s prose is beautiful and completely engaging. The small chapters and the author’s skilled writing make this 500+ page book a quick read.
I found myself invested in the character’s outcomes, and enjoyed the perspective on WWII. Werner, though blonde, blue eyed, and truly the Aryan ideal, is constantly conflicted about what exactly he is being trained to do at school. Marie-Laure’s chapters are especially intriguing to read, as she experiences the world very differently from Werner in terms of the senses. Extremely smart, she learns to “see” the world through her other senses, and is even able to navigate Paris and Saint-Malo alone with the help of city models constructed by her father. She’s also willing to question authority, and learns to truly stand up for herself from Madame Manec, Etienne’s elderly house keeper. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Madame Manec decides she is not taking Saint-Malo’s occupation quietly. Marie-Laure and Etienne later learn that Madame Manec’s weekly meeting of women may have been doing more than just misplacing important papers, or putting ingredients into bread that cause allergic reactions in a German solider receiving it.
The story carries an undercurrent of fantasy in a stone called the Sea of Flames, originally housed in Paris’ Museum of Natural History where Marie-Laure’s father works. The stone is said to bring immortality to the holder, but catastrophe to those they love. This isn’t the axis the story rotates on; however, the question of whether or not it actually has these powers hovers in several characters’ minds throughout. The true magic in the story is actually the technology known as radio. Radio is what initially connects Werner and Marie-Laure (though they don’t know it), and saves and endangers both of them. Though an amazing example of communication’s ability to connect us, it also is used as a tool of oppression.
All the Light We Cannot See leaves you with questions about your own life, and whether you are living it to the fullest. Both Werner and Marie-Laure struggle to come to terms with the balance of beauty and horror in life, and what it truly means to “see.” As Madame Manec states at one point, “Don’t you want to live before you die?”