Ever since I picked it up in the summer of my seventh grade year, The Book Thief has been my uncontested favorite book. I have since read it three or four times, each repetition resulting in a few more dog-eared pages and underlined phrases. For those of you who have never opened this excellent read (or even worse…just saw the movie), it follows a young girl named Liesel and her foster family who shelter a Jew in their basement during World War 2 through the narration of death himself. Morbid, I know.
So, I was thrilled to open All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr on Christmas morning. I had heard great things about this book and could not wait to start reading. All the Light We Cannot See is a novel about the Holocaust, but it doesn’t include a single concentration camp or starving prisoner, meaning that if you are worried about the graphic horrors usually found in books of this genre, fear not. This novel alternates between the stories (and viewpoints) of two children who are growing up in the 1940s at the height of the Second World War. The first is a girl named Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris and went blind at a young age. Her father was the keeper of the keys at the Paris Museum of Natural History, so even without her sight Marie-Laure lived in a world of knowledge and discovery as she roamed the museum each day while her father went to work. When the Nazis take over Paris, however, Marie’s father knows that his blind child will not stand a chance, and they quickly escape to the seaside town of Saint Malo to live with her uncle Etienne, who suffers from severe PTSD, and his mother-like housekeeper, Madam Manec. Marie helps bring her Uncle back into the world, and must find her own place in resisting the war.
The flip side of the story is told by a young German boy named Werner Pfennig. Growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta to to care for, Werner never had many opportunities. Other children made fun of him for his bright white hair and oversized ears, but one day when Werner discovers an old transmitter radio locked in an old shed, his life changes completely. The boy quickly realizes he has a natural gift for mathematics and mechanics, and the radio is fixed in no time. Word gets around about the strange looking boy and his brilliant mind, and it is only a matter of time before the Nazi generals themselves are having Werner fix their broken equipment. One such general proves to be a guardian angel and paves the way for Werner’s admission at the Sculpfora, a German academy for soldiers and Nazi youth. In saving Werner from the future of mine working he otherwise would have been forced into, the general open his eyes to a new type of punishment. The boys at the academy are cruel, and the instructors have a heartless, “weed out the weak” policy that results in Werner’s best friend becoming permanently brain dead. He does learn from his physics professor however, and soon becomes a master of radio transmissions and trigonometry. As Werner grows and leaves the school behind, he becomes immersed in the war where it is up to his quick thinking to save lives or end them.
By the end of the book, Werner and Marie-Laure’s lives have come together in an amazing, complex way I would probably go crazy even trying to describe. I really enjoyed this book, the writing was so beautiful and unique, and I enjoyed the way the point of view switched off between the two characters. Similar to the Book Thief, the novel is told through the experiences of children, which puts this awful time in a whole new light. I would recommend this book for anyone who read the Book Thief and loved it as I did, or anyone who is interested in learning more about the civilian side of World War Two. Something tells me I will be reading this book again in the near future, because any read that can transport me to another place and time is an A+ in my book (pun fully intended).