Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
First off, I have to say how proud I am of myself for completing this book in February- yes I only read two books last month but it is the shortest month so give me a break. In my last book post I did say that it would probably take me the rest of February to finish this book, and it almost didn’t happen. See, it is hard to read with all the distractions available so I actually did not pick up the book until Saturday the 27th of February when I was suddenly hit with the desire to keep my word and finish the book in February. At 10pm February 28th, I did, and it was the only thing I managed to achieve that weekend. The book has over 500 pages and it became a mission; read 100 pages take a break, another 100 pages and you can watch a YouTube video. It is amazing how much one can achieve when one turns off the television and focuses. I’m realising now that the tv will always be there, and it doesn’t hurt to turn it off once in a while and do something else. Anyway on to the book.
All the Light We Cannot See is a book by American writer Anthony Doerr. Published in 2014, the book went on to win the Pulitzer and numerous other accolades. Set around world war two, the book simultaneously follows two people; Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living with her Locksmith father in Paris; and Werner, an orphan German boy living with his sister in a Children’s home in the coal mining town of Zollverein. Marie-Laure is doted on by her father, a locksmith who works at the Museum of Natural history, who builds a model replica of their street so she can be familiar with her surroundings, and buys her books in braille so she can satisfy her incessant thirst for knowledge.
Three hundred miles northeast of Paris, Werner and his sister Jutta are enchanted by radio. They find a destroyed radio which Werner manages to restore, and from it comes a French voice talking about light and science. Werner, described as a small pale boy with hair whiter than snow, is exceptionally bright and preternaturally skilled at repairing radios, and he soon receives acclaim as the neighbourhood repairman.
Reality is shifted when Germans invade Paris; Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris by foot in a long torturous journey. They are not alone, in his pocket is the sea of flames (or a replica)-an extravagant diamond from the museum which is rumoured to be cursed. They end up in Saint-Malo in her grandfather’s childhood home where her great uncle still lives. Her great uncle is a veteran and victim of World War I; a shell-shocked recluse whose days are marred by hallucinations. Here, Marie’s ever doting father sets out to build her a model of Saint-Malo, similar to the one she left behind in Paris. He is picked up and sent to a prison in Germany.
On the other side, Werner’s skill gets him noticed and he is sent to a National school and from there to the war where he and other people ride across Europe detecting and intercepting enemy transmissions. Werner puts on a brave face and does not publicly questions anything, but inside him are seeds of doubts and confusion-are they doing the right thing?
Eventually their paths cross, and it is radio that brings them together.
There are other notable characters- Madame Manec, the maid who has lived with and tended to Marie’s great uncle since he was a boy; Claude something- an opportunistic parfumier who profits from the war by selling out others, and of course Von Rumpel, the sergeant major who is on a quest to find the sea of flames and will stop at nothing to get it.
I found the book interesting enough, and very well written; It could be argued that the writing is better than the story itself. The story is unique enough but it is the writing that elevates the book. The writer eloquently conveys the sadness, fear and confusion that war brings, as well as the little triumphs and pockets of joys that we manage to find in the midst of the storm.
“…yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it towards the breaking point.”
The book is split in thirteen parts which oscillate regularly between time periods. I found this quite unnecessary. It may have helped build the suspense a little but I felt it wasn’t needed. By the time I returned to a time period I had to remind myself of what is going on. The chapters are short, some only a page. This was fine especially as we are moving between time periods and characters.
I liked the main characters and found them both interesting to follow. Despite the trials and tribulations life has thrown their way, they are both gifted and passionate about their interests. Both Marie and Werner liked to learn and I wish there was something that fascinated me as much as radio did for Werner, and the ocean/mollusks did for Marie.
The crux of the novel is that Marie and Werner live different lives in different places, and their paths meet in a stroke of fate. I read the book eagerly awaiting this meeting; it was almost 400 pages in before their paths crossed, and when it happened it was brief and unsatisfying. The writer avoided the wartime romance cliché, and perhaps it is better that way, but I wanted more. In short the book was nice but it was not as gripping as some other books I’ve read and enjoyed. There were times when I was just reading it to finish, and there were times when I had my heart in my mouth. I wanted more. Werner’s sister could have been utilised better. The story of the diamond and Von Rumpel’s search for it was initially interesting, but after I while I tired of it and thought why is this man still here?
I am now fascinated by radios and how they work. I have never given much thought to them and I cannot remember the last time I actually listened to a radio, but now I am enthralled. The fact that anyone can send out signals and depending on how strong they are they can be heard by others far away is so interesting. I wonder if I can create one in my room.