Book Review for All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
It is always hard to write a review of a book that has achieved such high honors as a Pulitzer Prize (although I know that such prizes don’t always mean I’m going to agree with the judges’ assessments). However, this story about a young German boy and a blind French girl during World War II seems certainly worthy of many accolades, partly because it isn’t your typical story, but mostly because of how this story is told combined with a truly luscious writing style that borders on poetry.
The thing that people will immediately realize about this book is that this isn’t one story, but its actually two stories. On the one hand, we have Werner’s story – the orphaned boy, living with his sister in a mining town in Germany. His knack with radios gets him noticed, and he’s sent to a special school run by the Nazi party, where he not only develops his talents, but also sees firsthand the type of cruelty that one person can visit on another. Werner’s dilemma is that what he witnesses at this school appalls him, but he also knows that if he goes back to the orphanage, it could lead him to the same fate that killed his father.
On the other hand, we have Marie-Laure, who lost her eyesight as a young child, several years before the Nazis invaded her country. The latter event makes her father take her away from Paris, to the town of Saint-Malo where his reclusive uncle lives. Her father does his best to help her cope with her disability, including carving models of their neighborhoods so she can figure out where she is when she’s outside. He’s also hidden a secret inside the model of the home they’re living in; a diamond that legend has it is cursed, which the Natural Museum in Paris entrusted to him with for safe keeping.
You can already see there’s a great deal of complexity here, and a whole lot of possible subplots. But somehow, Doerr keeps all of this down to its most simplistic form, by concentrating on just these two characters, and how they make their way through a war in which neither of them wants to be involved, all they want is to survive. In fact, I think this is the real artistry of this novel, in that the focus is so carefully done, so much character driven, that these two are practically under a microscope, where we can see every wrinkle, practically ever cell in their bodies. What surprised me more than anything is that while it is very easy to be sympathetic to a teen-aged blind girl, was the fact that Doerr was able to get me to feel the same about a German boy who is recruited into the Nazi army.
This was probably why this novel felt like one of the more unique WWII stories. Usually (probably because I’m Jewish), I often feel that WWII novels that seem to avoid the Jewish genocide part of that war, are insulting. Of course, if they throw in a cursory line or two about it, that’s worse than ignoring it altogether. I didn’t feel that way about this book. Furthermore, I was surprised – how could I ever feel sympathy for a Nazi soldier? Not an easy question to answer, especially if you’re Jewish and you know or are related to any holocaust survivors, as I am.
That’s the other magic here. Doerr successfully presents Warner as someone who has no interest in politics, no interest in racial issues, and practically no interest in being a blind loyalist to his country or to this party. He’s just a boy who doesn’t want to work in the mines that killed his father; he just wants to build and use radios. If going to this school is the only way to achieve that goal, then he’s willing. But at what cost? His sister Jutta seems to know, and isn’t happy about this choice. We soon learn that neither, in fact, is Werner, whose conflicting feelings are made very clear to the readers.
Of course, it isn’t hard to find a young blind girl trapped under the Nazi occupation of France to be a sympathetic character. Doerr’s work was much easier here, but that doesn’t mean he shirked in his writing of Marie-Laure, since describing how the world of the blind is experienced is no mean feat. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to go about it, even though I grew up living next door to a blind girl. But I think that Doerr did a very good job here (although I would love to hear what visually impaired readers think of this portrayal).
All of this seems like pretty high praise, and I am totally certain that these are precisely the aspects of this book that won Doerr the Pulitzer and other prizes for this novel, together with his beautiful prose. However, I think they decided to ignore what I felt was a less than satisfying ending. Of course, I can’t go into details here without giving away spoilers, but I will leave it to say that to my mind, sometimes less is more, and that also means that more is less. Despite this small niggle, I can still warmly recommend this novel. While the ending didn’t ruin the book for me, it certainly prevented me from giving it a full five stars; still, four and a half stars is a very good rating from me.
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