After a long absence (due to a happy cocktail of getting married a few months’ ago; taking an Environmental Studies AS level; and trying my hand at a few pieces of freelance writing for Collectively) I finished All the Light We Cannot See last night, and, once the sobs had subsided, immediately felt the need to write a review.
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the most stirring and tender pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Centred around the build up to, and fall out from, the Second World War, it tells the story of two children – Marie-Laure and Werner.
Marie-Laure is a young Parisian who, having lost her sight as a little girl, learns to revel in the mysteries of the world through the patience and love of her father. Her Papa is a locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and as well as designing impregnable cases for the Muséum’s treasures, builds his daughter a miniature version of Paris as a way of teaching her how to find her way through the city. Their relationship is beautifully drawn – the way in which Marie-Laure’s father teases the confidence and imagination out of her, and, as the story progresses, shields her from the horrors of war, is deeply moving without ever feeling sentimental.
Just before she loses her sight, Marie-Laure is told the story of a large blue diamond locked up somewhere in the Muséum, which confers eternal life on whoever carries it whilst inflicting destruction on their loved-ones: the Sea of Flame. As the Nazis swarm across Europe (and unbeknownst to his daughter) Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted either with the real diamond or a decoy, and told to get it out of Paris. The pair make their way to Saint-Malo; to the home of Marie-Laure’s brilliant great-uncle, Etienne, a man still deeply scarred by the horrors he witnessed in the First World War. Inevitably the legend of the diamond obsesses one particularly cruel treasure-hunting Nazi, who pursues the small family to their hiding-place and threatens to destroy their sanctuary.
Woven into these scenes is the story of Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, both snow-haired orphans living in a mining town in Germany. When he is still very young Werner finds a discarded radio, which he teaches himself how to fix. As he is flicking through the static one evening, he discovers a distant French voice giving dream-like lectures to children on science and the mysteries of the universe. He and Jutta fall in love with the voice and the worlds of knowledge it opens up to them. For Werner in particular, the mysterious Frenchman inspires a deep fascination in mathematics and engineering, and before long he has become a prodigious radio-engineer. His remarkable academic abilities win him a scholarship to one of the Nazi’s top boys’ schools, and as Jutta looks on in despair, her gentle, curious brother becomes mired in the moral horrors of Hitler’s programme for Germany’s elite children.
In one respect, this is a good old-fashioned page-turner: in addition to inter-weaving the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr also takes you backwards and forwards in time so that their denouement is teased from the very beginning. It’s wholly gripping, and I simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished it last night. More than that, though, the novel unravels the ways that war strips the magic and wonder from life. In their own ways, the novel’s children are fascinated by the natural world – by molluscs and radio waves, botany and birds. The machine of war corrupts, steals and warps those passions, threatening not just the characters’ lives but also the inexplicable mix of kindness and intellectual curiosity which defines them. One of the questions which is asked time and time again throughout the story is what these children might have been had it not been for the barbarity of that war: yes, the novel is affirming in many ways and there’s a vein of indomitable humanity throughout, but it is also, inevitably, completely heart-breaking, as each of the characters loses the world they’d known and the life they might have lived.
When I’d finished snivelling into the kitchen roll, I have to say that it all felt quite timely and political, too. Hopping onto my soap box for a minute, I’ll be voting to remain in the EU for a raft of reasons (it makes economic sense; our only hope of decent environmental legislation comes from Europe; the immigration scare-mongering is Daily Mail nonsense; and we need to avoid the TTIP by being part of Europe, not by substituting it for something more sinister (as George Monbiot wrote today)). But it’s also more fundamental than that. The EU may primarily have an economic raison d’être, but it was essentially assembled in the wake of this very war to create a united, peaceful, prosperous Europe. I defy anyone to read a novel like this and to feel isolationist.