All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, published by Scribner 2014
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
This novel is historical fiction, set primarily in World War II, France and Germany.
When life is simple and in balance, and there has already been recovery from a terrible war, if nobody wants a war or invites it, how can it be imagined and prepared for?
There is talk of war coming and Marie-Laure asks her father often about the rumours and he tells her that, “. . . everyone remembers the last war and no one is mad enough to go through that again.” He is the locksmith for the museum and he spends his days focused on making locks, dispensing keys and taking his blind daughter through exercises to help her memorise the details of their local district.
Werner, a German orphan promised a miserable future as a coal miner, is transported into a realm of imaginative possibility through building a radio. Every night with his sister, Jutta, he listens secretly to a French scientist. The music, science and story that come to them on the invisible waves breaks open the severity of their tiny worlds and suddenly they are amongst all the wonder and vastness of human history.
These children are separated, moved unpredictable distances by the great forces of war and spend their growing years struggling with its physical and psychological severities.
This work is poetic and tender and Doerr can be described as a ‘writer’s writer’, such is the quality of his work. ‘All the light’ may have been originally written in fragments, each of which has become a very short chapter. Some chapters are little more than a page and a half. This narrative is not linear; it doesn’t trace a time line but works through other connections operating across it. The reader is guided by these subtle interactions of text and character.
In his acknowledgements Doerr says he owes a great debt to Jacques Lusseyran’s And There Was Light . I thought often of Lusseyran’s memoir while reading this novel. It is an account of the beauty of the unsighted world and of an incredible human being who worked for the resistance in war time France and went on to survive imprisonment in a concentration camp. It’s recommended reading for everyone in the same way as Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is, in that it transcends limits of what we believe is possible in human life.
As has been mentioned in other reviews, ‘All the light’ is a book you know very early on you won’t want to finish. It is deserving of the awards it has won. It delves carefully and courageously into history and impresses the timeless importance of knowing when it is possible to act and choosing to do so for the sake of another.