“A good book is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, what human nature is and what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” — Susan Sontag
I resisted reading “All The Light We Cannot See” when it was published in May, thinking the world did not really need another novel about the second World War. Well, I was wrong.
It is quite a vocabulary challenge to find the adjectives to describe this marvelous book without falling into cliché. Anthony Doerr’s wordsmithery is superb, his storyline development masterful, and the characters described so vividly that it is absolutely inconceivable that a reader could resist engaging in their lives. The main protagonists are a German orphan boy and a blind young French girl. I assure you there is no schmaltz in this story, which was what I feared when I read some of the blurbs. This is not a book to be read quickly, but one the reader will want to savor, soaking in all the luscious details of the plot evolution.
Werner Pfennig and his younger sister Jutta live in a Children’s House with about a dozen other children of various ages in a small German mining town of Zollverein. Frau Elena is their loving caregiver who also teaches them French. It is 1934 and curious, clever Werner peppers Frau Elena with questions, and with his sister Jutta, scours the junk piles in search of “stuff” from which he makes things. One day, he finds an old radio and figures out to repair it, which opens a new world to the Children’s House. For one hour every evening, they listen together to music and programs on the radio, after which Werner takes it back up to his sleeping area. When unable to sleep one night, Werner finds a broadcast by a French man teaching science to children and playing classical music. Werner and Jutta listen faithfully for weeks until no longer able to receive his signal. This “French professor” and his broadcasts will turn out to be a link to a young blind Parisian girl living about 300 miles from Zollverein.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives in Paris with her father Daniel, the chief locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History, just a few blocks from their apartment. Marie-Laure’s blindness was caused by congenital cataracts and by age six, her sight is gone. Daniel built hisdaughter a replica of their Parisian neighborhood, whittling every building in exact miniature and making sure she memorizes it. He also takes her out for walks and makes her find the way to different destinations and back home, always a step or two behind, always close, always coaching her to use logic and reason. While Daniel is working, “Laurette” spends her time at the museum learning about locks while shadowing him and occasionally learning about shells, mollusks, whelks and other topics from the museum’s expert, Dr. Geffard with whom she spends occasional afternoons.
All the characters in this book had to accept and learn to live with harsh realities. Werner and Jutta’s father died in a mining accident, and with their mother already gone, the Children’s House was their only option. Werner would be sent down to the mines when he reached his 15th birthday, as were all the boys. His engineering skills earned him a different fate. Still, the lack of autonomy, opportunity and individual choice in society at that time is sobering to see in print.
It is refreshing to read a book about World War II that writes Germans as real people, not stereotypes goose stepping their way through life. The trek that Daniel and Laurette make when they have to leave Paris to join his uncle in the seaside town of Saint Malo is horrific, exhilarating and inspiring. The starkness of daily life during wartime for the civilians, soldiers and French resistance are depicted in heart-wrenching detail. Doerr wraps up the stories of the main characters at the end of the book, taking us to the year 2014.
I have read some great books over the past year — some superb for their genre — but I believe “All The Light We Cannot See” is a modern classic, even though it was only published four months ago. It should be required reading in high schools. The only other book I have judged so highly was “Someone” by Alice McDermott.
There are so many nuances in this book, it is hard to stop praising and analyzing it, but I will, right now. Rating: 4.9/5.0. It is available in all formats everywhere. Collier County Public Library has it – waiting list is 100+.
author image=”http://www.coastalbreezenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/gust.jpg” ]Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org [/author]