All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Our Review: Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, All The Light We Cannot See is luminous in its beauty and grace. Anthony Doerr has skilfully woven a tale of two children who through various circumstances end up alone during the Second World War. One is a young French girl, Marie–Laure LeBlanc, daughter of the Master of Locks with the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Devoted to his daughter, Marie- Laure’s father watches with increasing alarm as her sight gradually fades to total blindness. One of his ingenious ways to help her maintain her independence to make miniature scale models of their homes, the entire street and surrounding neighbourhood. As the war threatens to overrun Paris, he is entrusted with the one of the museums most infamous treasures -the ‘Sea of Flames’ diamond- a diamond of legend that is reputed to bring horrendous luck to all who possess it. Already there is an underlying suspicion that the diamond has bought on Marie-Laure’s blindness. As he flees Paris with Marie-Laure to the saunctaury of his cousin Etienne’s island home of Saint Malo- a small island joined by a bridge to France, he is unsure if he has the real diamond or one of the three copies, sent across Europe to hide their identity in his possession. Etienne is another of Anthony Doerr’s intriguing multi-faceted characters. Reclusive since the First World War, he refuses all company, seldom leaving his multi-storey apartments, his rooms located on the fifth floor of his sprawling home. It’s a place of wonder, with rooms brimming with secrets, creaking corridors and ever spiralling staircases. Marie –Laure wonders if there are ghosts. However it’s also a place of warmth, good cheer and saunctaury as the housekeeper Madame Manec clucks over Marie –Laure and her father. Marie-Laure with her gentle manner breaks down her Uncle Etienne’s defences. He reads her stories from Darwin and paints vivid images of French explorers conquering jungles. He shows her a special radio on his rooftop. It’s a time of peace and grace before the bombs come.
Here we leave Monsieur Le Blanc, as interwoven into this complex tale is the other major narrative of Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta, two German orphans who grow up amongst Nuns in a Catholic orphanage. This is one of the major strengths of Anthony Doerr’s writing, just when you expect darkness to descend, the nuns and other children in the poorly equipped orphanage are portrayed with real warmth and empathy. At the age of eight, Werner reveals a talent for electronics, in particular short-wave radios. The children and the nuns listen each evening, enthralled to French radio transmissions about science, the brain and all the wonders of the world outside their small town. Earning extra money for his beloved nuns, Werner transverses the neighbourhood fixing the most complicated of sets, when he inadvertently comes to the attention of a senior German officer. When his talent is revealed, he is rapidly absorbed into the German hierarchy and is sent to a special academy for ‘exceptional boys’.
At first this seems like a saviour from the horrors of becoming a worker in the towns coal mines, a death pit that claimed his father. To his dismay however, his discipline and scientific aptitude carry him into the Wehrmacht, where his brilliance is used to locate the senders of banned radio transmissions. Sickened by what happens to the culprits of these illegal transmissions, when he is dispatched to the island of St Malo, he ultimately decides to allow the broadcasts to continue unmolested, in the process saving his friend Marie-Laure. To tell any more would be to give away the secrets that this marvellous novel holds. A brilliant read and worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Review by Nicole @ Great Escape Books