All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II drama about a blind French girl called Marie-Laure and a German boy called Werner who grow up in very different circumstances and whose lives eventually converge.
This book won the Pulizer Prize in 2015, so it goes without saying that it’s good. It actually took me a while to read it, a) because it’s long; and b) because I got kind of war-jaded about a third of the way in and took a break to read something else. When I came back to it though, I got through the last half pretty quickly.
Trying to escape the coming war, Marie-Laure’s father takes her to live with her reclusive uncle in the fortified French seaside town of Saint Malo. Shortly after, Daniel disappears, leaving Marie-Laure to survive with the help of her uncle and a housekeeper.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner is an orphan with genius-like aptitude for radios who is drafted into the Hitler Youth, and eventually ends up in Saint Malo, as part of a team hunting down rogue resistance radio operators.
It’s beautifully written, with poetic prose on every page. The chapters are extremely short, rarely more than two or three pages, so it’s easy to get through. The description is fantastic, and you really get a feel for life under siege and the hopelessness of the characters’ situations.
As with most war-themed books, there are lots of things that never get full closure. Sometimes people who disappear are never found, and there are injustices that aren’t righted. It kind of reminded me a little of Atonement by Ian McKwan, where you know that while some characters might come out of it okay, there will be some that don’t, leaving you with a sense of regret that not all endings are happy, yet satisfaction at the book’s realism.
Looking it as a writer (as I always do in these reviews), there’s a lot to learn in the form of structure, and especially the use of very short chapters. My own tend to run 1500-2000 words, but at a guess most in this book were in the sub-1000-word range (3-4 pages).
Also in the way certain things were never explained or left off screen. This is an important technique that inexperienced writers often fail to use correctly – the notion that you don’t have to say everything. Once you’ve built up an image for the reader, it’s okay to leave some resolutions to the reader’s imagination. A story is as much what you don’t say as what you do. Two examples of endings left to the reader’s imagination that come to mind are the fate of one of the slaves (it’s either Halle or one of the Pauls, I forget which without rereading it) in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the demise of Syrio Forell in George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
If I had to pick a hole it would be that the omniscient narrator negates the fact that Marie-Laure is blind, because even though she can’t see what’s going on, we still do. It’s a small gripe though, and doesn’t stop you from enjoying the story.
Anyway, All The Light We Cannot See gets a five from me.