Anthony Doerr

The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is a riveting tale of two young people whose lives intersect in the turmoil and devastation of World War II. The narrative unfolds in three separate threads that converge at the end of the novel.

The first thread involves Marie-Laure, a young French girl living in Paris with her father. Marie-Laure is blind. Her father fosters her independence by building a miniature model of their neighborhood so she can learn to navigate the streets on her own. As the Nazi invasion of France becomes immanent, Marie-Laure and her father escape to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to stay with her great-uncle. Her father, an employee of the Museum of Natural History, is given the museum’s most valuable jewel for safe-keeping—a large diamond supposedly endowed with magical properties.

The second thread involves Werner Pfennig, a young German boy who lives in an orphanage with his sister. Werner is a self-taught technician with an exceptional talent for building and fixing transmitters. He is recruited to the Hitler Youth and then sent to the battle front to determine the exact location of the transmitters used by the resistance.

The third thread involves a German officer dying of cancer with an obsession for locating this “magical” diamond because he believes it will cure him of his disease. After systematically chasing down all the clues as to its possible whereabouts, he ends up in the home of Marie-Laure’s great uncle, convinced the diamond is hidden there.

The narrative alternates between these three threads in flash forwards and flashbacks while simultaneously shifting locations. The sequence is not chronological—chapters switch between different characters and different years. This technique heightens the tension and sustains interest as one has to read the whole book to fit the pieces together chronologically. The tension in each thread gradually builds up until the climax when the three threads converge in the great uncle’s home. To accentuate the rapidity of movement, Doerr frequently writes short, clipped, well-crafted sentences; to generate a sense of immediacy, he uses the present tense.

Doerr’s prose is poetic; his imagery immersive; his research impressive. The rich, sensory details transport the reader to war time Europe where we breathe, taste, smell, touch, hear, and see the impact of war on cities and on lives. Rather than focusing on the big picture, Doerr chooses to focus his lens on the lights we cannot see—the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people, especially children. He gives voice to their experiences by illuminating what typically remains hidden in the shadows. And he does so in luminous prose that sizzles and sparkles on every page evoking the electrical currents in Werner Pfennig’s transmitters.

A remarkable achievement and highly recommended for all who love a good story told in poetic, immersive language by a master craftsman.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review