All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer in 2015 and it is easy to see why. From start to finish, this story is written with incredibly beautiful prose and the characters are totally real as we weave in and out of their lives from their pre-war childhood histories to the end of their lives. There are two main characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a resident of Paris, France, and Werner Pfenigg, born in Zollverein, Germany. Each of these characters has three main people in their lives.
The story begins in August, 1944 with Allied bombers dropping leaflets over the fortified coastal town of Saint-Malo, France:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
The tension is set up right from the beginning. The bombers come. We meet the girl. We know she is blind and alone in the house. She has no sense of time because the church bells no longer chime the hours. She finds a paper stuck in the shutter, its flapping the only sound breaking the eerie silence. We know she cannot read the warning.
We meet the boy. He’s in the basement of the once magnificent hotel with two other German soldiers, debris piled around and above them, the stairway inaccessible, their radio broken.
Then Doerr takes us to 1934 and the childhood of our heroes: Marie-Laure, blind from age six, her doting father, the key-keeper of the National Museum of Natural History, patiently creating a scale model of the houses and streets around their house and teaching Marie-Laure the routes she must take to his work, to the park, to all the nearby places they like to go, until he is certain she cannot get lost if she has to walk it on her own. Werner, born in a mining town, he and his sister Jutta orphaned when their father died in the mine, destined to go to the mine himself and never leave this miserable town with its constant coal dust over everything, yet interested in everything scientific and born with a special skill to understand anything to do with radios. He makes his bedroom in the attic so that at night he and Jutta can listen to radio broadcasts from everywhere. They find a wonderful voice late at night that explains nature and science in a way that children can understand and Werner’s imagination is thoroughly captivated.
[His] favourite is about light: eclipses and sundials, auroras and wavelengths. What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible. (p.53)
There are thirteen sections to the book telling the two stories at different periods of time — childhood, the early war days, the coming of the Allies, and, finally, the present day: 2014. The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, originally told separately, contain hints of overlapping at some point, and, miraculously, they do overlap eventually, if briefly. The stories are at various times delightful, poignant, frightening, angering, and hopeful.
Werner escapes one horror, that of living always in that mining town, only to become part of another with only letters from his sister, the memories of those ethereal lessons over the radio in his childhood, his expertise with radio transmitters of all kinds and his giant of a friend, Volkheimer, to keep his mind away from the killing all around him.
Marie-Laure leaves Paris with her father to stay with a friend of the director of the Museum only to find the house abandoned and looted and so they travel on to Brittany and Saint-Malo, where her Uncle Etienne lives by the sea and Madame Manec keeps house for him. What Marie-Laure doesn’t know is that her father is carrying a special stone from the Museum — it could be a fake, or it could be the real thing — the director has had three copies made and sent them and the real diamond in four different directions to keep it from the Nazis. When her father is recalled to Paris, he is arrested. Madame Manec creates her own ring of defiant housewives who smuggle messages to Uncle Etienne who relays them over his one radio in the attic which escaped the German sweep — the radio he and his brother used to send little lessons of science to children across Europe.
This is an extremely powerful story. It didn’t end the way I thought or hoped it would but it was none-the-less satisfying and it is still sinking in. The prose impacts the reader at every turn; you can open at any page and read randomly and the words sweep over you in an almost magical way. It drives the story home in a real and compelling way. * * * * *