I’m excited to begin the week with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This World War II novel hinges on the U.S. bombing of St. Malo, an isolated port on the northern French coast, which continued to be occupied by the Nazis after most of Brittany was liberated.
All the Light We Cannot See is a literary novel with a page-turning, suspenseful quality which, as mentioned in a particularly excellent Publishers Weekly article, is enhanced by cutting back and forth between time periods and between the storylines of three main characters–two young people on opposite sides of the war and one Nazi officer searching for precious jewels. The reader knows these three are going to intersect, but exactly how and when?
Werner attends a Nazi high school where he develops his special ability with electronics. His experiences reflect the highs and lows of radiowaves. Marie-Laure is blind and on the cusp of adolescence when the war begins. As she experiences the world through touch and smell and sound, her chapters describe the world using these senses. Throughout, the generous white space between short, titled chapters helps the reader to digest the beautiful, precise writing that stays close to the natural world. In fact, science is a major preoccupation of both Werner and Marie-Laure.
I love the idea of having another literary WWII novel to recommend to young lovers of The Book Thief. This one is equally lengthy and lyrical, but quite different–beautiful in its own ways.
* DOERR, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. 544p. Scribner. May 2014. Tr $27. ISBN 9781476746586.
Marie-Laure and Werner are brilliant, resilient children displaced by the madness of World War II. Marie-Laure, 11, lost her sight at age six and has learned to experience the world with her other senses. Her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, builds miniature replicas of her neighborhood so that Marie-Laure can memorize her way to the baker, the grocer, the delicatessen. Often, the models are intricate puzzles that unlock to reveal a special treat. When the Nazis occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the fortress town of St. Malo on the Breton coast. With them, hidden in one of her models, but unknown to Marie-Laure, they take a legendary diamond from the Museum, a treasure the Nazis desperately want to possess. Werner, an orphan in Germany, has a precocious talent for repairing old radios which earns him placement in a special, but brutal, Nazi youth camp where he learns to use his talent with math and electronics to target enemy positions for artillery. Near the end of the war, Werner, Marie-Laure, and the obsessed Nazi hunting the rare diamond have a harrowing encounter. Doerr, nesting his tender tale within a time-jumping, page-turning yet subtle thriller, brilliantly portrays the brutality and emotional chaos of war and its impact on the innocent who, ungrounded, must find a way to make sense of and survive the experience. In that way, it will remind readers of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and will have similar appeal among teens.—John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY