All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a beautifully written account of two lives in World War Two, a blind French girl called Marie-Laure LeBlanc and a German boy called Werner Pfennig.
The chapters alternate between Marie-Laure who lives in Paris with her father, a master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, and Werner who, with his sister, lives in the coal-mining town of Zollverein. Werner, who discovers an aptitude for fixing broken radios, finds himself sent to a Nazi school for training soldiers and is eventually employed in a team that traverses Europe on the hunt for illegal resistance broadcasters. For Marie-Laure and her father, the outbreak of war sees them fleeing to the Brittany coastal town of St Malo to stay with her great uncle, Etienne LeBlanc, a shell-shocked survivor of the First World War and a keen radio enthusiast.
The two threads of the story do eventually meet, but not until about three-quarters of the way through what is a very long novel. Until that moment, it can feel a little as you’re reading two separate books and, at times, as if the story is treading water. When the plot lines do merge, however, the story becomes very satisfying.
There’s a sub-plot to do with a valuable, possibly cursed, diamond that is held at the Museum of Natural History. When Marie-Laure and her father flee to St Malo, he is given either the real diamond or one of three fakes to take with him. The Nazi Reinhold von Rumpel, a rather grotesque, comic character, is traversing Europe on the hunt for valuable artefacts. Needless to say, his searches bring him to Marie-Laure’s door.
If you enjoy slow, poetic and poignant reads then you’d probably enjoy this book. The third person, present tense narrative moves backwards and forwards between 1934 and 2014, although the main action is centred in 1944. The writing is beautiful and detailed and the author does a good job of weaving the stories of Jules Verne into the text, specifically Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which Marie-Laure reads in Braille.
A book to read slowly and savour.
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