Thoughtful levels in a historical fiction with elements of a thriller and a love story.
Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publication date: May 2014
Type: Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical
Characters: Werner Pfennig, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, Frank Volkheimer, Etienne LeBlanc, Frederick, Jutta Pfennig, Madame Manec, Reinhold von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Daniel LeBlanc, Dr. Hauptmann, Walter Bernd, Bastian
Ray’s rating: 5 stars
All the Light We Cannot See has had much praise heaped on it in addition to its Pulitzer prize. All that is merited, in my opinion. This is a really good book. It is a skillful blend of historical fiction with elements of a thriller (even a MacGuffin to chase) and a love story. But while it is true to the conventions it pulls from, it is more than the sum of its genres. The narrative pulls the reader along, building tension and conflict in two main storylines, until it resolves both and leaves the reader with a lengthy anticlimax putting it all into perspective.
The book is some 530 pages, but don’t be put off by that length. It’s all in chapters that are mostly one-to-three pages so that the story is told in many short scenes. Still, the narrative is engaging and the plot engrossing enough to make it a fast read. Or at least a seemingly fast read—the kind where you get so involved in the story and characters that you don’t want to leave them.
There are two main storylines following the two main protagonists—Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. The setting is WWII Europe, mostly France and Germany.
Marie-Laure is a blind girl who is caught up with her father in the Nazi conquest of France in 1938. Daniel LaBlanc works at the National Museum in Paris and flees with his daughter to the port town of Saint-Malo, carrying a rare and precious diamond to keep safe from the Nazis. They live with Daniel’s uncle, Etienne, in a six story house in the middle of town. When Daniel is arrested, Marie-Laure is left in Saint-Malo with her great-uncle Etienne and housekeeper, Madam Manec. They become involved in the resistance and broadcast military intelligence from Etienne’s radio in their house’s attic.
In the other plotline, a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, is educated in electronics at a Nazi school. He becomes a radio technician specializing in triangulating radio signals to find the location of a broadcast. Werner is put into the German army where he is assigned to a unit hunting down resistance radio broadcasts. This work eventually takes him to Saint-Malo, where he picks up the intelligence broadcasts of Marie-Laure’s uncle, music, and Marie-Laure’s broadcasts of readings from Jules Verne.
In bringing together these plotlines, the author, Anthony Doerr, weaves themes of love and humanity in the face of oppression. Marie-Laure, the blind girl, sees more beauty in the world than most people. She has an innate sense for dance and the world’s wonder that she expresses in a love of ocean creatures and the works of Jules Verne. One pleasure of this novel is how Mr. Doerr uses passages from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to highlight specific points.
The theme of love of the natural world is also expressed in the love of the character, Werner, for science. That love leads him to becoming a radio technician in the German army. Werner loves working with the technology, but in doing so, he supports the operations of an evil regime. He has to suppress his conscience until he can’t any longer. That is a moral dilemma that very many technicians have to face, even to this day.
I have only one significant criticism for All the Light We Cannot See and it is a technical one. Mr. Doerr uses the narrative device of swapping between points in a ten year time span in telling his story. This is a device that, in my opinion, has been way overdone in recent years. Television series are especially bad about doing this. It’s not that doing this is “wrong,” it’s just that it’s become like seeing another vampire movie. While Mr. Doerr is skillful in using this device, I believe he could have told his story just as well (or better) if had done so in straight chronological sequence.
Overall, this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Though set in a dark time with horrendous oppression besetting the protagonists, it comes out a hopeful, even inspiring, book. Such inspiration can be hard to find these days, especially if you are aware of the sorry state of the world. A work of art, such as this book, is one of the few avenues I can find to reach that place where the beauty and strength of the human spirit still lives.