All the Light We Cannot See ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s a World War II story (yes, another one) set mostly in the small French coastal town of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a French girl, blind from the age of six. She lives with her widowed father, who is employed as a locksmith at an enormous Paris museum. Marie-Laure is very bright and seems to live life to the fullest despite her blindness. She reads books in Braille—Jules Verne is her favorite writer—and she and her father are happy in their lives. All of that changes, however, when Germany occupies France and Marie-Laure and her father flee to the town of Saint-Malo and the home of Marie-Laure’s father’s uncle, whose name is Etienne.
Marie-Laure and her father are happy in Saint-Malo with Uncle Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec, in spite of the deprivations of war. After a time, though, Marie-Laure’s father is called back to Paris by his employer (apparently a trick) and is captured and imprisoned by the Germans. Marie-Laure has no other choice but to continue to stay with her great-uncle in the narrow, six-story house in Saint-Malo. The town is right in the way of the fighting, though, so war comes to their doorstep when the Allied forces invade France to liberate it from the Germans. Etienne is forced to give up any radio transmitter in his home, but he keeps one secretly and continues to broadcast information that will be of help to the resistance movement. Marie-Laure is also part of the resistance, as she carries information, baked into loaves of bread, that he can transmit.
Marie-Laure’s story is juxtaposed with that of a German boy named Werner Pfennig. Werner and his sister Jutta live in an orphan home in a dreary mining town in Germany. Werner is also very bright and teaches himself the principles of mechanics and radio technology. When people see that he can repair radios that nobody else can, he is chosen to go to a “Hitler Youth” school. He has been looking for a chance to escape his dreary, futureless existence (and an enforced job in the coal mine when he turns fifteen) and this is his one chance, although he isn’t at all political and he hates to leave behind his sister, Jutta, as she is his only family.
Werner and his small contingent happen to be in Saint-Malo when it is heavily bombarded. They are buried for many days beneath a hotel that has collapsed. With what little he has to work with, he is able to put together a radio receiver that allows him to hear radio transmissions. He hears the voice of Marie-Laure as she reads from Jules Verne. When he and the others miraculously and unexpectedly escape from their imprisonment, he goes looking for the girl whose voice he heard. We knew all along that his life and Marie-Laure’s life were in some way going to intersect. He plays an important role in her life, but not in the way one might expect.
All the Light We Cannot See is a very readable book, with short chapters, most no more than two or three pages long. It’s not what you would call a long-winded book despite its 530 pages. The characters are engaging and believable and, even though it’s a wartime story, it’s not about war but about innocents whose lives are caught up in war. World War II continues to provide an unending source of storytelling material. What would the twentieth century be without war? Not nearly as tumultuous or as interesting.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp