With All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has created a picture of World War II that has been described as lyrical, atmospheric and compelling and it certainly drew me in and kept me engaged and invested in the lives of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig.
All the Light We Cannot See has the qualities of children’s story, which perhaps is why it is so instantly familiar, the main protagonists, both children, are no mere ordinary children, rather they are each uniquely challenged, uniquely gifted and so very good. There is also a mystical component, a rare gem, whose owner receives both immortality and a curse which must be hidden from the Nazi’s at all costs. Let’s back up a bit.
Daniel LeBlanc is a master locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. His job is to create a protective case for these gem – the Sea of Flames – or perhaps it is not the real gem, maybe it is one of the replicas. Daniel is also father of Marie-Laure who is blind and motherless. He creates puzzle boxes to hone Marie-Laure’s manual dexterity, he makes replicas of her neighbourhoods to give her power over her environment and teaches her braille to expand her world. Marie-Laure is a confident and caring child who, through her exposure to the natural history museum and the heightening of her other senses, becomes engaged with the natural world.
Werner Pfennig (and I found the story of his younger years the most interesting part of the novel) is described as a practically albino child, an orphan, who comes to the notice of the Nazi’s due to his innate gifts with radios and circuitry. Werner found himself at a elite Nazi school which would eventually lead to a position in the Wehrmacht. Each child was measured against an Aryan ideal and against each other. It was a fascinating look at how a loving and innocent child can get drawn into the brutality and indoctrination of the Nazi regime. A child’s weakness was identified and exploited and he would become the target of brutal torture. Who would speak up for him? No one of course, self preservation is a powerful motivator.
And, of course, the children are destined to meet and have a profound impact on one another’s lives.
While in one sense the plot moves slowly, the reading experience does not. The novel is highly descriptive (I did read one review in which the reader complained at length about the vast number of adjectives and adverbs!) but is contained within such short chapters that you find you are sailing through to see what happens next. The alternating points of view and timelines create a reading experiences that is a little bit challenging and most enjoyable.
Fans of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje would be pleased to choose this novel.
“With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.” publisher