09 November 2016

"All the Light We Cannot See"

All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr novel).jpg

Anthony Doerr's 2014 award-winning novel was our Raleigh book club's October selection. I usually post about our books shortly after reading them (here, here, and here) but I wanted to take some time to compose my thoughts about this superb novel. Yet as time passes with little to show I decided I'd better post something before forgetting even more.

"All the Light We Cannot See" is one of the finest contemporary novels I've read. I'm not the only one to think it is very good. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 and was a New York Times bestseller for 118 weeks.

Doerr combines exquisite descriptions of multiple settings, detailed characterizations, and a complex plot. Principally set during WW II, "All the Light" manages to find not one but two new points of view on what is a thoroughly mined period of history. We can appreciate that young Werner Pfennig would be happy to leave the orphanage and escape a life of drudgery in the coal mines of Zollverein for a chance to pursue study of the day's high-tech instrument, the radio. That he did so at a high school military academy as part of the Nazi regime was a matter of indifference, at least at first.

Far from the industrial heartland of German we meet Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the recently blinded and motherless twelve-year old daughter of the locksmith employed in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. As the German advance approaches the city, Marie-Laure and her father flee with--perhaps--one of the museum's prize artifacts, the Sea of Flames, a diamond of inestimable value. Four duplicates of the Sea of Flames have been created and none of the five escaping museum employees know whether he has the fake or the original.

I won't begin to summarize the twists and turn of the paths of Werner from Germany to Russia and back again as the Russians gradually overpower the army of the Third Reich, and of Marie-Laure from Paris to Evreux and ultimately to Saint-Malo, a small city on the Brittany coast. Of course, Werner is eventually sent to Saint-Malo where he and Marie-Laure barely survive the Allied firebombing of the city.

I'll leave the mystery of the Sea of Flames, the death of Werner, the many other well-drawn characters, and the rest of Marie-Laure's life to the reader. Doerr's magnificent writing, his wealth of detail (the book was twelve years in the writing), and balance of joy and sadness make "All the Light We Cannot See" a pleasure to read. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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