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.