“What you could be.”–All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
WARNING: Here there be spoilers
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel doesn’t need much in the way of introduction. It has been reviewed and recommended in perpetuity since its publication, and for good reason – it’s a gripping and engaging book so intricately woven that when the pieces and characters finally come together, it’s done in a way that’s incredibly satisfying to the reader.
The story follows blind Marie-Laure LeBlanc and her father as they flee during the Nazi invasion of Paris to the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo. Her father, a museum locksmith, is placed in charge of a priceless and irreplaceable gem (which may or may not hold a curse) that the Nazis, particularly Sergeant Major von Rumpel, want to claim as their own for the envisioned fuhrermuseum.
Meanwhile, Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are stuck in a German orphanage in a mining town. Condemned to the mines when he turns 15, Werner escapes his fate when he finds and repairs a broken radio. Soon this incredible newfound aptitude garners him attention and he is swept off to training at Schulpforta, eventually being sent to Russia as a radio technician.
These two characters don’t meet until close to the end of the novel, but their fates are carefully and thoughtfully interwoven until the climactic moment when Marie-Laure and Werner, now both in their late teens, are able to overcome von Rumpel as he attempts to take the gem from Marie-Laure, to whom her father gave the gem after he was summoned back to the museum in Paris and then arrested.
At the story’s conclusion, Werner is dead and Marie-Laure is a doctor researching mollusks at the same museum her father, whom she never saw again after his arrest, worked. And the gem? Left to the mercy of the sea and its churning tides. Or maybe it was in the pocket of Private Werner Pfennig when he stepped on a landmine. Either way, like Marie-Laure’s ill-fated father, it is lost forever.
All the Light We Cannot See is a story of redemption, of the ties that bind. It is moving, its characters memorable, its prose unforgettable. But it’s not without its flaws. I personally felt the scene in which Jutta, Frau Elena, and the others are raped by the Russians unnecessary, adding little to the story – perhaps even ultimately detracting from it. I also wasn’t entirely convinced by the method and portrayal of Werner’s death. It felt strangely rushed.
My favorite characters were easily Volkheimer, Werner’s gigantic uniformed protector and comrade-in-arms, and Frederick, Werner’s gentle bunkmate at Schulpforta. The depth and intensity these characters brought to the story added dimension and challenged the concept of black and white and other absolutes, even when it comes to Nazi soldiers. In the end, we’re all only human. Only light.
I highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See.
Dates read: July 18-22, 2021