All the Light We Cannot See is a novel following the lives of two young people in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II, but it is much more than that and it's presented in a different way than might be expected from a "war novel." The writing and structure is laid out in a way that starts the reader off a little unbalanced and uncertain but then draws the reader in to a different way of seeing.
As mentioned, the story focuses on two main characters. Young Marie is a girl who grew up in Paris living with her father, the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. She goes blind at age six and her father works with immense care and precision to help her adapt to her new life and to see and understand the world in a new way. When the war arrives, Marie and her father are driven from Paris to the far away town of Saint-Malo where they live with a reclusive uncle and wait for better days. A nation away, young Werner is an orphaned teenager in a small German town who finds a broken down radio and learns to repair it. Through the airwaves he and his sister find and listen to an intriguing radio program filled with scientific essays and beautiful music. His aptitude for radio catches the attention of the military and he is inducted into Hitler's Youth where he is trained as a soldier but then gets assigned as a radio operator on a special team. The lives of these two children seem impossibly unrelated and yet their intertwined narratives work as commentary on the nature of humanity and life as they each push through circumstances beyond either of their control.
The organization and structure of the novel may take a few chapters to get a good hold on and even then it may leave the reader disoriented at times. Not only does the book alternate between the stories of Marie and Werner and their lives hundreds of miles apart but it also sometimes bounces backwards and forwards in time, usually without presenting a clear interlude to help ground the reader in the new setting and time period. Thinking about why the author made this particular choice, I see a couple of possibilities. While a simple A-->B narrative flow may have been simpler to write and easier for a reader to follow, the bouncing around suggests to me that the author wants the reader to focus more on the distinct experiences and individual moments, much in the way Marie has to focus more intently after going blind in order to understand and navigate her own world. As a newly blind individual, Marie must learn to slow down and take in every detail distinctly and individually in order to better understand it and place it within the larger picture of her world. I also think of the disorientation of the reader as a sort of metaphor for the feelings of uncertainty and confusion of Marie, Werner and all of the others caught up in this chaotic time. With the chapters alternating and keeping the reader unsure of where the next page will land us, we have to work harder and more deliberately to find the overarching purpose or plot of the story. Similarly, those in the uncertain chaos of a war torn world have to put for extra effort to see the bigger picture and find a larger purpose or direction beyond that of the trials they currently face.
Once the reader falls into the flow of the narrative structure the story opens up and becomes fairly straightforward but also interesting and emotionally stirring. The setting and situations naturally lead to heightened emotional levels but the book goes far beyond the emotional shock value of news sound bites and quick images of WWII. The writing of this book is elegant and beautiful. The descriptions of objects and interactions are so detailed and wonderful that you can be truly drawn in and see the world in your mind's eye much the same way as Marie may do so. The flow and use of words is almost poetic at times as it pours from the pages similar to the hauntingly beautiful music that entranced Werner and his sister on the radio he expertly repaired. The vocabulary is lovely and wonderful but also very accessible. By using children and teenagers as the primary protagonists, the language and tone of the novel stays wonderfully clear and direct. We are presented the world with childlike awe and amazement but also with the questioning innocence and disillusionment of children when presented with the atrocities of humanity in time of war.
In spite of the great praise and recommendations I've seen for this book I have to acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy it. For some, the narrative structure and style may be too disorienting to warrant pushing through. For some, a more "normal" war story may be more desirable. For others, the awful and horrible situations of the war may be too intense or emotionally unsettling. As for me, I found this to be a great read and while I can't say I "liked" the moments of pain and suffering that come with war, I definitely enjoyed the writing and I really loved the way this novel made me step back and think about humanity, life and everything in a slightly different light. The title talks about light we cannot see and it seems to try and open the reader's eyes to a new kind of seeing...a vision that focuses on the small details in new ways and works to understand the larger picture from a different perspective. Pay attention to the beauty and wonder of the little moments. Persevere through the situations over which we have no control and strive to be the best you can be in every situation.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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