All the Light We Cannot See by Edward Doerr
This book, you guys. This book will maybe haunt me. As far as war-related novels that I will remember, it ranks only behind Atonement. I appreciated that it was, I feel, a really well-told story. Others have reviewed it for CBR before, but if you aren’t familiar with it, here’s a quick synopsis. A young girl Marie-Laure is blind and lives with her father, a museum curator, in Paris before the war. They flee when Paris is invaded by Germany. Werner is a German orphan with a younger sister. He is conscripted into military school as a teenager.
The story is told through very short chapters, and alternates between the bombing of Saint-Malo and the years of Marie-Laure and Werner growing up. The writing is extremely vivid; I could easily picture every scene. It could have been too flowery, but instead it was just lovely.
I read one review (I believe on CBR) that said it wasn’t real enough in describing war, making it seem more like the bedtime story or fairy tale version. I disagree with that assessment. Or, I should say, it felt that way to that reviewer, but I had a very different experience with the text.
I thought that the realities of war were brought out remarkably well. I appreciated that this wasn’t just a story about how war impacts soldiers, but about how it impacts individual civilians attempting to live their lives during extraordinary circumstance. For example, the way Madame was risking her life – and the lives of Etienne and Marie-Laure – to participate in the underground anti-war movement was harrowing. My breath caught when Marie-Laure took over. During the chapters on the bombing, I just thought of how someone who literally gets around because she knows the streets so well would have such challenges when the streets are no longer the same. How she couldn’t know if someone had snuck into the home.
And I did not think that the book was overly sympathetic to Werner. Now, if this were the only book or exposure a person ever had to Nazi Germany then sure, it’s clearly not the story of every Nazi soldier. But I think it’s so easy for people to just assume that everyone on the other side of is pure evil. I think it can be much more complicated than that – especially with young children are involved – and dehumanizing ‘the enemy’ makes it all too easy to forget that it’s possible for the person you think of as regular or even good to do some pretty awful things. I also think that Werner’s ending was absolutely appropriate. He’s done something he think is finally right (helping Marie-Laure), and gets so ill that in a fever dream he walks into a minefield. In a sense, it matters greatly that he helped Marie-Laure (for her, obviously), but for him … he still ended up dead from war.
We are reading this for book club, so I’m really looking forward to hearing other peoples’ takes on this one. I don’t read that many novels, but I’m definitely glad I read this one.