Aunty G recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr to me a cat’s age ago. I dutifully went off to the library to find the book at the time but took home About Grace instead, which I read and enjoyed. I’ve been looking forward to reading All the Light We Cannot See since then.
All the Light We Cannot See has been in the most popular book lists for several years and also won the Pulitzer Prize, so is probably already known to most readers. I’m not sure how I missed all of the hype, but I began reading without knowing anything about the plot.
The chapters rotate between two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, whose lives don’t intersect until the end of the book. The story began in the mid 1930s, when Marie-Laure was a little girl living in Paris with her father and Werner just a few years older, an orphan being brought up in a children’s home in Germany along with his much-loved younger sister.
Marie-Laure’s father, a locksmith at a prestigious museum, brought Marie-Laure up to be free, courageous and to know her physical world, despite her having gone blind as a small child. When France was invaded by Germany, Marie-Laure’s father was entrusted with the ‘Sea of Flames’, a priceless diamond owned by the museum. Together, they fled Paris to take refuge with the locksmith’s brother in Saint-Malo, in a tall house next to the sea. Soon after arriving in Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father was arrested and after a few smuggled letters to his beloved daughter, disappeared.
Meanwhile, Werner’s talent for repairing radios was developing and he and his sister used it to listen to educational radio programs being transmitted across Europe. Soon after, Werner gained a place at a frighteningly vicious school for Nazi boys where his skill, bravery and obedience allowed him to advance, despite his misgivings about the inhumane treatment of his fellow students and more particularly, the prisoners whom the students ‘trained’ on. When Werner found himself on the wrong side of one of his instructors, he was shipped off to the war to track illegal radio transmissions, even though Werner was underage.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel where one of the main characters was a German soldier in World War Two. I felt enormous sympathy for Werner and his fellow students.
Marie-Laure’s character provided an ideal, someone to protect who was also brave and resilient, but most of all, she was someone who represented the best of humankind, leaving us with hope.
The writing is beautiful, but for me the story lacked emotional depth. I think this was because the chapters switched between the two characters so often and so quickly. Longer chapters may have allowed Werner and Marie-Laure to become more real and less of an ideal.
Despite this complaint I don’t regret reading All the Light We Cannot See, which is a surprisingly fast read due to the short, alternating point-of-view chapters.