by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is not only a National Book Award Finalist and one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014, it was also awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Its format of short chapters that alternate between the stories of a young French girl and an orphaned German boy keeps the reader engaged and intrigued.
The girl loses her eyesight because of juvenile cataracts. She has lost her mother and lives with her father in Paris; her father is the curator of a museum of natural history and a meticulous collector, cataloger, and preserver of natural specimens, particularly of mollusks (there are over 50,000 species of clams, snails, octopi, squid, etc.) and other sea specimens. To help his daughter cope with the gradual loss of her eyesight, he carves a model of the city that is her “world” — every building, curb, drain cover, light post and tree of it. It is his persistent passion to help her be a survivor and navigator of her environment.
The boy, on the other hand, is a parentless lad with a sister; they both live in the Children’s House, a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse in a bleak coal-mining area outside Essen, Germany, where smokestacks belch black toxins, eggs sell for two-million reichsmarks apiece, and “rheumatic fever stalks the Children’s House like a wolf.”
Enter Hitler and his purging of one country and the raping takeover of another. One story is France experiencing a gradual change like water heating slowly around a frog swimming in a pan of it. The other story is Germany and a young boy constricted into the brainwashing children’s military camps of Hitler, a boy who is sent there and preserved there because it is discovered that he has an uncanny and seeming instinctual ability to understand and fix anything electronic.
Add to this the see-saw telling of the evolution each of these two young persons is making in two different settings and the greed of the Third Reich for treasures of great value, and the reader becomes a part of — and not just an observer from the distance of seven decades — the War that swallowed Europe and England and sucked the United States into the fray to help rescue the world from a maniac.
Crawl with a blind girl along the dark cement wall where the ocean meets the city. Run your hands along the place where giant snails move their suctioned “feet” in the damp darkness.
Work with urgency with the boy in the back of the German van, patching wires with little more than sheer ingenuity in order to pick up Allied signals to be relayed back to the Nazi headquarters. Feel the contradiction of the hardest decision a soul can make between life and right, knowing that death will likely be the reward for either.
And peer deeply into a diamond with a flame in its belly that just might be a curse after all.