Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, defies the standards for that prize in its complete lack of American characters or themes, but the work itself overcame the prize rules’ stated preference for a work “dealing with American life” with exquisite plotting and searing character portraits. The novel seems ripe for sentiment – I can only imagine what Hollywood will do to the conclusion – but Doerr manages to dance on the line separating emotion from mawkishness without crossing it, building up to a single moment lasting no more than two pages that brings his two protagonists together in one of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in years. (It’s only out in hardcover in the U.S. but is available in paperback in the U.K.)
Doerr gives us two narrative threads for most of the book, adding a third a bit later on to help tie the first two together, with each of the pair of primary subplots featuring one of his two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind 12-year-old girl who flees Paris with her father, a locksmith at the French Museum of Natural History, when the Nazis invade in 1940; and Werner, a German orphan who saves himself from a life in the mines by showing an early aptitude for working with electronics, especially radio transmitters. Marie and her father, who may have been entrusted with a priceless jewel from the museum’s collection, end up in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the northern coast of Brittany that was badly damaged by Allies near the end of World War II; when her father is taken prisoner by the Nazis on questionable pretenses, her care falls to her shell-shocked great-uncle Étienne, who has a sizable radio transmitter in his home’s hidden top floor. Werner ends up in a draconian military academy before a little age-modification lands him a spot in a roving military unit that’s assigned to locate and snuff out Resistance radio transmitters within occupied Europe. When Marie and her great-uncle join the Resistance and begin such transmissions, it’s obvious that Werner’s unit will end up in Saint-Malo to try to find the source … but she’s also sought by the Nazi treasure-hunter von Rumpel, who believes her father took the genuine diamond and is desperate to retrieve it before he runs out of time.
The story comes to the reader in very short bursts, too short to be called chapters, with interludes toward the very end of the war interspersed throughout the longer sections that lead from 1934 (when Marie-Laure and Werner are still little children) to the war’s outbreak, eventually catching up to the second timeline in the interludes where all three subplots collide in Saint-Malo. Flashbacks are themselves a tired technique, but the brevity of each passage gives the novel the quick-reading feel of an epistolary work, and in this case there’s value in forewarning the reader of the tension of the final denouement while also tipping us off that certain secondary characters might not be around for it.
Doerr relies a bit too much on coincidence to deepen the tie between Werner and Marie, a detail that in some ways overshadows the generosity of spirit in their single encounter, where Werner takes multiple actions that save Marie’s life. However, he avoids so many other hackneyed devices both in the path to that scene and in that meeting itself that still manages to explore new emotional territory, looking into the possibility of kindness within the heart of darkness in ways I’ve only seen before in fictionalized parent-child relationships. (All the Light is also one of the only contemporary novels for adults I’ve read recently that has very little sex or profanity, both of which are frequent and overused crutches in modern adult fiction.)
Marie-Laure is a bit romanticized, the innocent girl waiting for one of various men – her father, her uncle, and eventually Werner – to save her, but Werner is a fully-formed character with ambition and remorse, driven by emotional and physical needs to succeed at his task yet haunted by knowledge of the results of his triangulations and scarred repeatedly by assaults on the shreds of his innocence. He is the moral center of the book, this teenaged Nazi soldier through whom Doerr shows us the horrors of war via an unusual and new lens.
Next up: Roger Zelazny’s Hugo winner Lord of Light.