What to expect when you read a historical novel set in wartime? A display of brutality, a spectacle of bravery or cowardice or both, an atmosphere terrorized by bombs and soldiers, and, inevitably, tragic deaths, traumatized survivors. It would be stupid to expect a happy ending from a historical novel set in wartime.
But All the Light We Cannot See is unlike any war-themed historical novels I have read. Some books focus on the relationships (which usually make the tragedy even more depressing), some others on the desperate efforts the characters were making in attempt to get out of a situation, and some books reveal the reality of man when faced with fire; the worst and the best. This book combines all that, and more.
The story revolves around two major characters. First is a sightless French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc, daughter of the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her father made her a model of their neighborhood in Paris and later the city of Saint-Malo, and got her Jules Verne books in Braille for her birthday. When German airplanes began to bomb Paris, she and her father fled to Saint-Malo, a walled city in northern coast of France to stay with her great-uncle, Etienne LeBlanc. It was unknown to Marie that they carried a dangerous treasure with them; an exotic blue diamond worth millions of francs known as the Sea of Flames.
The second major character is Werner Pfennig, a white-haired German boy who grew up in an orphanage with her sister. He liked to fix radios while her sister Jutta was busy making sketches. His intelligence and talent earned him a place in Schulpforta, a special school where the best German boys were trained for the war. Despite the brutality he faced everyday at Schulpforta, he had a heartwarming friendship with a boy named Frederick. Later he was sent for missions to several cities and finally, to Saint-Malo where he crossed paths with Marie-Laure, as the vague details of the story was being unwrapped one by one.
I am usually fascinated by war-themed books, and by the time I saw the cover of this book I was instantly attracted. On the cover it shows a photograph of a walled city by the sea and big skies. It is blue, my favorite color. And the fact that it won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 made me set my heart to read it. But what makes this book different? It was very detailed and rather slow-paced that it took me 25 days to finish it. I have never read anything by Anthony Doerr before, but after reading this book I would like to think that he is a scientist with the soul of a storyteller, or maybe the other way around. He poured little details about locks, mollusks, diamonds, radios, birds, light, and science into the story and brought all of them together with a style of writing I find rather romantic.
The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
War-themed books usually left me emotionally wrecked, but it’s not the same case with this book. It didn’t make me cry, but I am deeply moved by how the characters showed kindness toward each other, even in unlikely times and situations. I found more spark in the minor characters like Frederick and Madame Manec than in characters with bigger roles, but I love Werner Pfennig with all my heart, and wished that somehow, he could be spared of premature death. I am a little irritated when the characters “sees” or “hears”, as if they were relentlessly reminded of the past, whether it was in their near or distant past. Maybe if this happened only to several characters and not almost all of them, I would not be as annoyed. However, I love the way the author wove together the little stories of each characters into one epic and exquisitely written tale of courage and humanity. Five stars for this book.
“You must never stop believing. That’s the most important thing.” – Madame Manec
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
531 pages, published May 2015 by Simon and Schuster
My rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥