All the Light We Cannot See

It’s August 1944. The small French town of Saint-Malo is besieged, bombs raining down from the advancing American forces. In the attic of a tall, narrow house, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is hiding, clutching the jewel that the Nazi prowling below is so desperate to find, and which she herself, being blind, has never seen. Elsewhere in the town, eighteen-year-old Werner, a German soldier, is trapped underneath the remains of the Hotel of Bees.

Those six days in early August are at the heart of this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Extended flash-backs throughout the story tell the tale of Marie’s and Werner’s respective growing-up years and the way in which, before they ever met, their lives had become connected.

At fourteen, Werner is unexpectedly given the opportunity to attend Schulpforta, a Nazi boarding school. As a talented orphan who is destined to work in the mines that killed his father, he sees this as a way to escape, an opportunity for a brighter future. While at Schulpforta, he becomes friends with Frederick, a quiet bird-lover entirely out of place in such harsh surroundings.

“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?”, Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.

For Frederick, though, that’s not the question:

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”

But it is Frederick, not Warner, who—when the boys are taken outside one winter day and given buckets of water to dump over a prisoner tied to a stake in the courtyard—refuses to do it.

As a result, the commandant and the other boys make Frederick’s life one of torment, ending with him being beaten up so badly that, some thirty years later, he still needs to be spoon fed, and spends his time drawing spirals on paper.

But the memory of Frederick’s decision comes back to Werner when he, too, must make a decision in Saint-Malo in 1944:

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not—Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare occurring over and over and over.

Bolstered by that realisation, he makes his choice too, but if you want to know what that choice is, you’ll have to read the book.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, heart-breaking story. It’s not a book of neat, smiling resolutions. After finishing it last night, I sat in bed and cried.

It’s a poignant reminder of the meaningless loss of human life that war entails. Of the sickening brutality of the Nazis. Of childhood innocence destroyed. These are nightmares that hardly bear thinking about. But there is also the blessed relief of beauty, goodness, and love.  The beauty of the sea, the shells at Marie-Laure’s fingertips.  The tender care of a father for his blind daughter. Courageous decisions and self-sacrifice. It’s a masterfully-crafted book. But be warned: it’s a painful one too.

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2 thoughts on “All the Light We Cannot See

  1. this review makes me want to read this book…. or does it? i might have to work up my emotional stamina beforehand. =P

    in all earnestness, though, i think our easy lives afford us too much the luxury of philosophizing war, history, pain, and consequences, yet not truly comprehending them or even acknowledging our own lack of understanding about them. maybe books like this one are good for us. barren of the romance and happy endings that soften pain into understandable increments, such heart-breaking stories might afford us great benefit.

    this is particularly fresh in my mind due to an ongoing research project for one of my college classes about the social gospel. last night i was reading accounts of different poor families in “20 years at hull house”. i tend to come at things from a very rational perspective–and in researching the social gospel, i have been thinking of it mainly in rather distant terms of theology and philosophy. but when i was reading accounts of these broken mothers and children roaming the streets, i was suddenly reminded that in all my rationalizing i must never forget that accounts of people in history are not fiction. these were incredibly real people who suffered incredibly real pain and sometimes very real joy. i am a history major in college. i tend to think about historical events in large, arching terms. but i broke down in tears, actually, because i was so convicted that i forget… i forget that everything i study really did happen. that there was–and still is–such real, desperate pain in the world. what you point out in this book review cements this conviction in my mind even further.

    so before my comment gets longer than your actual blog post… thank you. =)

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Blair! (And I’m sorry for not approving it sooner–I’ve just got back from being on holiday.) I think you’re right that books like this are good for us sometimes, even though they’re hard to read. As you say, they help to remind us of reality and feel compassion. I know I need them to make me *be* more compassionate too.

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