All the Light We Cannot See is a book that needs to be experienced. It’s not the sort of book where one can look for writing style or use of words. It’s more about taking in the events that unfold before us. More than that, it takes us through the experiences of being caught up in the midst of WW2 through the eyes of two young children, Marie-Laure and Werner Pfennig.
This book has received rave reviews, and critical acclaim as well as grabbing the Pulitzer prize for best fiction in 2015.
Paris. 1934. We mainly stay with six-year-old Marie-Laure, who is blind. She lives with her father, who looks after her with all his heart. He has made a miniature model of the Parisian neighborhood they live in. This way Marie-Laure uses the model to understand the streets and navigate through them safely on her own.
Her father works at the Natural History Museum and often talks to his daughter about this diamond that they safeguard with utmost secrecy and protection. Their lives are put in danger the Germans invade France and both Marie-Laure and her father are forced to leave their town and move to a smaller town nearby called Saint-Malo. There they live with their uncle Etienne, who himself is a war veteran.
Germany. 1940. We are introduced to Werner, who is an orphan working at the coal mining town of Zollverein. He has an exceptional skill in fixing radio types of equipment. He’s so good at what he does, he is sent to a boarding school, from where he moves on to work for the unified armed forces, tracking illegal entries.
When Germany invades France, Werner is caught up in the ensuing madness and is caught under a pile of rubble with his radio. Being stuck there for days without food and water, the only thing that keeps him alive is the radio broadcast of a girl who reads out the story of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This girl is Marie-Laure.
The novel ends in 2014. Marie-Laure is 86 years old and lives with her grandson in the same streets of Paris where she grew up.
The character of Marie-Laure and Werner are beautifully drawn characters. Their childhood innocence permeates everything and then they are forced to grow up in the horrible events of the war. Witnessing the events of the war through their eyes just made me feel like what a horrible thing war is. Children ask the most innocent of questions as they try to make of what’s happening around them. Writing a novel based on the children’s perspective is not an easy task.
The novel does become emotional at times but stays away from becoming sentimental for the sake of being sentimental. The experiences are kept as real as possible which only makes the threat of being in danger all the more real. There are moments in the book where I was so drawn into the world of both the children and could experience what they were going through (even though I’ve never been in a war situation).
However, the major highlight for me in the book is the hope that exudes from the two main characters. Their lives, perhaps through the innocence of them being children, shows us all how they fight against all odds to stay optimistic and positive. They give a lot of hope to everyone. When Werner is stuck beneath the rubble, he uses the radio and the voice of Marie-Laure to keep him alive. Marie-Laure herself is blind, but makes the effort to read out the story on the radio. Both these children do not give up – they fight for their lives to live.
Ultimately, what the writer manages to get to us through the eyes of the children, is that no matter how dire the circumstances, people can try and do try to be good to one another, and that is what matters at the end of the day.
I can’t find the words right to describe the book- it’s rich, it’s sublime, it’s just feels like an honor to be part of the writer’s work to be able to experience this book.
All The Light We Cannot See is a book that many people have recommended highly, and most have resonated with one thing or the other in the novel. I certainly resonated a lot with the children’s perspective. I also resonated very strongly with the idea that life all comes to down to the fact that people should be good to one another and what is makes us all human beings.