Thursday, 23 June 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr gives us a compelling glimpse of one corner of World War II - the pounding the Allies gave Saint-Malo in their campaign to free France. He does this through the lives of two main characters: sixteen-year-old civilian Marie-Laure and Werner Pfennig, an eighteen-year-old German radio operator.

As the story begins, messages flutter down to the last remaining inhabitants of Saint-Malo, warning them to leave the town, due to be bombed the next day. Marie-Laure cannot read them because she is blind, while Werner is part of the last of the line of defence. As the bombs rain down, each makes their way into the underground cellars that could possibly entomb them.

The story switches back ten years to Marie-Laure’s childhood in Paris with her widowed father, a master of locksmithery at the natural history museum. We read of Werner’s life in an orphanage with his sister Jutte, where he discovers radio and a gift for technology.

Doerr’s characters are extremely sympathetic as well as intelligent and questioning. But they are fragile too. Marie-Laure could be targeted by Nazi eugenics policies, so her father hides her away in Saint-Malo with his reclusive Uncle Etienne and a feisty old housekeeper. Werner is pale and little, poised to be sent to the mines when he turns sixteen, until his knack with radios sees him groomed for Hitler Youth at a boarding school that makes Dotheboys Hall look like a holiday camp.

The terrible events of the war would seem to remove any self-determination from these characters. There is evil in many guises, particularly in the form of one Sergeant Major von Rumpel, but in spite of this, both Werner and Marie-Laure battle on, which keeps the plot simmering. There are amazing connections between the two they could never guess at, making their eventual meeting inevitable. The hefty emotional pull of events leading up to and after the bombing leaves you feeling moved and with much to mull over.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is a good book. The fact that it has won both the Pullitzer Prize and the Carnegie Medal kind of hints in that direction. It is also a wonderfully readable book, vivid, gripping and elegant, a powerful story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Posted by JAM

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