Wednesday, October 14, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was nominated for so many other awards, and is found on so many “best of” lists. This is an amazing book, on multiple levels. It brings the horrors of WWII down to a personal level, but is never overwhelming or overly dark/depressing. In the end, it speaks of the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of evil.

But don’t let the lofty themes scare you – this is also a wonderful story of two young people, a French blind girl and a German electronics whiz, and how they grew up before and during the war, and how their stories eventually come together. Doerr does a wonderful job of capturing life for each of these characters, enveloping the reader with delicious prose that captures the feel of their very different lives.
Marie-Laure lives with her widowed father in Paris. He is the locksmith and key master for the National History Museum, and Marie-Laure grows up surrounded by scientists and collectors. Werner is an orphan boy, who lives with his sister in an orphanage, and who loves to design and build things – especially radios. He is discovered by the Nazis and sent to a training school (boot camp) for young Nazis. The book weaves together the two stories of the children as they grow and as their world changes around them.

The narrative is told in multiple time periods, as well as the two main story arcs. The book starts with the bombing of the town of Saint Malo, with Marie-Laure alone in her great-uncles house. As we skip between storylines and time periods, we follow the two protagonists’ stories and are led to them finally intersecting. What happens after they meet is probably not what most readers would want or expect, but it rings very true.

The title of the book is from a radio lecture that Werner overheard as a young boy, about the spectrum of light. The small part of the spectrum that is visible to the human eye is infinitesimally small, compared to the rest. So much so, that – mathematically speaking – all of the light spectrum is invisible to humans. How this relates to the book is up to the reader’s interpretation. While the obvious hook is Marie-Laure’s blindness, I think it refers to all of the goodness (the “light” in a dark world) that is happening, even in the midst of WWII. Both Marie-Laure and Werner are often struck by some bit of natural beauty, or the kindness of a stranger, and I think it is this that helps them survive.

Another theme addressed is the age-old question of “What makes a good person do bad things?” This question is often raised when discussion Nazi Germany, and Werner’s story depicts this brilliantly. There are many scenes showing how he is gradually sucked into the Nazi war machine – even when his friend in school stands up and refuses to participate. I really came to understand how easy it can be for good people to be corrupted – or at least to be trapped so much as to go along, even when they know it’s wrong.

I also have to mention the prose – it’s fabulous. Doerr’s descriptions are nearly poetic in their imagery, yet it all flows effortlessly. It’s a page-turner, but with certain pages that will cause the reader to pause and savor the words on the page.

This is a book that will stick with me for some time to come – the mark of a book that is not merely entertaining, but that speaks to the human condition. It is truly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and is a book that everyone should read.

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