All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr popped up on all the "best of" lists for historical fiction in 2014 – or at least it seemed so to me. A literary work set during World War II in Germany and France, it follows two adolescents (actually starting in their growing-up years before the war.) Given the subject, despite the glowing reviews, I didn’t rush into this book because. . .well. . .did I really want to do that to myself?
Of course, I did. I couldn’t resist. The description sounded too compelling.
Werner Pfennig is a German orphan, brought up (with his younger sister) in a mining town by a woman who is French by birth. The woman takes care of a house full of orphans. His father died in a mining accident and Werner has a dread of going to work in the mines, which is presumed to be his eventual fate. Except that Werner discovers a gift for fixing radios. From that, he becomes fascinated with mathematics and engineering–as much as he can be given the little teaching available to a poor boy fated to be swallowed up by the mines. Then comes the war. The Nazi machinery is efficient enough to sniff out talent like Werner and he is, instead, swallowed up by the war effort.
Marie-Laure’s father is sent from Paris in charge of one of the museum’s most valuable artifacts–or a decoy. They flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo by the sea where her father’s uncle, a man damaged by WWI, has taken refuge. There, her father builds her another replica, this time of Saint-Malo. The adolescent Marie-Laure spends the war here. Her story will eventually intertwine with Werner’s, but not in any conventional fictional way.
The brutality of the war is inescapable. Werner’s fear and psychological distress as he adapts to being a Nazi soldier, going along to get along, is very real and sad. It is so much easier to read about a protagonist who stands up against evil, even if the consequences are terrible. Yet in reading Werner’s story you can see how it was that so many were caught up.
This is a long book, and yet I was hooked from the very first few pages. It’s beautifully written, wrapping you up in its imagery and forcing you to care what happens to its characters. This is one "best of" that lives up to the hype.