I waited a long time to get a copy of this novel at my local library. It seemed that everyone and his brother was trying to read it. After all, it had been on the New York Times best-sellers list for over a year, and had won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.
The story spans from 1934 to 1974, following the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure from childhood to adulthood. Marie-Laure is the only child of a widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She becomes blind at a young age, and her father builds her a model of their French village so that she can “see” it with her fingers. She learns to maneuver around town because she has memorized everything from the model.
Werner is a poor German boy being raised, along with his sister, in a charity house. He has a brilliant mind, and teaches himself all about radio technology. At 16 he is forced to join the Hitler Youth. When his superiors find out how great he is at understanding and repairing radios, they put him in a special unit that seeks out and confiscates them. It is supposed to be an honor to be in this special division, but he and his bunk-mate Frederick dislike the increasing brutality they see. There seems to be no way to get out; they are reluctant participants in a war neither one of them wants to be in.
The book oscillates back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, and back again. Each one has a part to play in the war, but they are on opposite sides. They are enemies, yet when they finally meet (more than 400 pages into the book) they are not enemies.
“All The Light We Cannot See” is a well-written story with a minimal amount of wartime horror spelled out. Still, it conveys the fear and uncertainty and darkness that most people felt during that time in history. Even those who survived physically carried the emotional scars the rest of their lives.
(Part of a conversation when Werner and Frederick are on leave from training camp)
“Do you ever wish,” whispers Werner, “that you didn’t have to go back?”
“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”
A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”
It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.