Book Review of the above title by Anthony Doerr. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
|I first have to say that I'm not a keen reader of wartime books or a watcher of said films. There is often a temptation to glorify it, to make it seem as if it is something to be worshipped.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised if I can use the word pleasantly in this context. It's a gentle story, to begin with, however, the change is subtle, the fear rising slowly before you realise it.
The reader follows the lives, mainly, of two children, one of them French, the other German. Two very different children, Marie-Laure, French, from a reasonably well off family, sadly her mother had died in childbirth so she is being brought up by her father. She then develops a form of incurable cataract and goes blind. Her father is patient and encourages her all through her childhood to be independent. He helps her to learn her way around the place in which they are living, and the museum in which he works.
In contrast to this is Werner Pfennig, a young boy, orphaned with his sister, Jetta, after their father is killed in a mining accident. They both live in a small mining town in Germany. Gifted with making and repairing anything electrical, especially radios, Werner is soon spotted and is sent away to school.
Marie-Laure also faces leaving her home, forced to by the invasion of Paris by the Germans, and because of her Father's work. As a high-ranking official in the Museum, he's chosen to take what could be a priceless gemstone and forced to escape with it to a small fortress town.
I enjoyed this book immensely, much to my surprise, it has very short chapters which jump backwards and forward between the two children, occasionally sending you for a chapter to follow another character. I think the reader would get confused if they were to jump to a third position in the story too often. It mostly changes between the two children as they are growing up, but it also jumps in time from their childhood to their present day. It could seem confusing but it's done in such a way that the story flows so well.
I believe it shows the importance of back-stories here, not only for the characters but for buildings too. The descriptions of both the Museum and Saint-Malo are incredibly detailed, the explanation of how long certain pieces had been in the Natural History Museum, gave it a sense of life. By Marie-Laure being blind, everything was described in such detail. This, of course, was for her sake, but I felt that it gave a huge insight into the world that the writer was trying to portray.
Werner and his sister Jutta played in an old mining cart, Werner pulls Jutta as far as the final mine, there's almost an audible pause, then you find that this one they usually avoid because it was the one where their father died, a vision that haunts Werner as he grows up. They live with a House Mother, Frau Elena and whereas Werner is fascinated by machines that he can fix, mostly radios, Jetta loves to draw; Werner admits that she outshines him in this area.
The differences in how the two siblings see the world grow wider, the older they get. You can see that Jutta would be something of a non-conformist, whereas Werner is a much more, do as he's told sort of child. An example is when he comes home to find his sister listening to radio broadcasts she's not supposed to. In fear and frustration he crushes the radio, his thoughts were that he didn't want her to get into trouble.
What I liked about this book is how it shows the slow journey the characters through Hitler's time in control, whether french or any other nationality. How a lot of the people were gradually indoctrinated, mostly by fear, then by rationing; the hardest thing was to see them manipulate the children and indoctrinate them bit by bit, taking advantage of their youth and naivety.
Werner often thinks of his younger sister's words to him while he's away at school, it influences him to try to leave, but to no avail, when he attempts to leave he is sent away, being told he's older than he says he is. This time he heads to Russia to fix yet another radio, one of his prototypes that ended up being sold across the country.
There were a couple of passages I found interesting because they related to each other, yet from each child's perspective. The first when children are enquiring of Marie-Laure what it's like to be blind.
'Does it hurt? Do you shut your eyes to sleep? How do you know what time it is? It doesn't hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.'i
The second is a quote from Werner as he's buried beneath a building and there's no light.
'After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.'ii
I found the comparison interesting, that darkness, or blindness is not always as complete as it appears. I found that with Werner and Marie-Laure, that as the book progresses their own blindness is lifted, they become aware as they mature, of what is happening around them. They then attempt to survive in what is something that they have no control of by this time.
An excellent book, one I've already recommended to friends and family alike.
i Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See (p. 44). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
ii Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See (p. 211). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.