All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer was the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The 544 page story is set against World War II, from 1934 to the end of the war. It tells the tale of a 6-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc and an exceptionally smart 8-year-old German orphan called Werner Pfennig.
This book immediately brought to mind The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, due to their similar historical backgrounds. Both are war memoirs. Both books end with the deaths of good people–Isabelle and her father in The Nightingale, Werner and Marie-Laure’s father in this book.
Between the two, I would have to say Kristin Hannah is the more skilled storyteller. All the Light We Cannot See is most markedly different from The Nightingale in its inclusion of the Sea of Flames, an intriguing myth.
Doer’s novel shifts back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, which disrupts the continuity in the separate story arcs.
There are many deeply touching events throughout the book. The one of the most unforgettable characters is Marie-Laure’s father.
Marie-Laure’s mother died at the childbirth. She lost her eyesight at age of 6. To make up for her loss of vision and help her gain independence, her father builds a model of the town, a miniature of the city, with properly scaled replicas of the hundreds of houses, shops and hotels, etc. He also builds a model of Saint-Malo after they moved there, with “the irregular polygon of the island framed by ramparts, each of its eight hundred and sixty-five buildings in place.” The tremendous amount of love and labor poured into this model is unbelievable.
The father took the 6-year-old Marie-Laure to his office everyday. One day, he said,
“Here, ma chérie, is the path we take every morning. Through the cedars up ahead is the Grand Gallery.”
“I know, Papa.”
He picks her up and spins her around three times. “Now,” he says, “you’re going to take us home.”
Her mouth drops open.
“I want you to think of the model [of the town], Marie.”
“But I can’t possibly!”
“I’m one step behind you. I won’t let anything happen. You have your cane. You know where you are.”
“I do not!”
Marie-Laure drops her cane; she begins to cry. Her father lifts her, holds her to his narrow chest.
“It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this, Marie.”
But the father never gives up, insisting that she learn to navigate the town by touch and by memory. “…in the winter of her eighth year, to Marie-Laure’s surprise, she begins to get it right.” By studying the model of the city, she has found that everything “in the model has its counterpart in the real world.”
With the ceaseless support from her father, Marie-Laure, despite her disability, grows up to be an independent and highly accomplished scientist, with great courage and intelligence. I thought of many contemporary parents who spoil their healthy children by being lax in dispensing discipline, and realized what a gift her father gave her.
Another heartwarming passage is when Marie-Laure’s father departs for Paris, leaving her alone for the first time in her life. He promises to come back in 10 days, and “On the twentieth morning without any word from her father, Marie-Laure does not get out of bed… She becomes unreachable, sullen. She does not bathe, does not warm herself by the kitchen fire, ceases to ask if she can go outdoors. She hardly eats.” I found it difficult to hold back tears, understanding how bleak yet wanly hopeful she must have felt during those days without substantive news.
He says she is his “émerveillement”, and that he will never leave her, “not in a million years.” His father’s words come back to her. Yet, he does not come back from that separation, and has most probably died at a German concentration camp.
I would have expected Marie-Laure’s father to survive the war, but it would not be quite realistic because war means death, and death is indifferent to good and bad souls and the wishes of a little blind girl.