All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015. The book is an epic. It spans an 80 year period but the vast majority of the story takes place during World War 2. It follows the lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphaned German boy with a talent for radio engineering and mathematics. When the Nazis occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, flee Paris and take refuge with Marie-Laure’s great uncle, Etienne, in St Malo. Marie-Laure’s father is a skilled craftsman and constructs models of the neighbourhoods where she lives so that she may learn to navigate the outside world alone. Werner’s skills see him recruited by the Nazis to detect and monitor the activities of partisans. The story is told in story parallel – Marie-Laure’s life alongside Werner’s and, obvious from the outset, is that Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives are going to intersect, and that some event will occur that will rip Marie-Laure’s father away from her. A further dimension to the story is that Marie-Laure’s father has been entrusted by the Museum with the supposedly cursed diamond, the Sea of Flames. This is being sought by the cancer stricken Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who is charged with collecting art and valuables for the Nazi regime.
I had this book on my ‘to read’ list so was very happy to borrow it from Isabel when she offered it to me. My mum was reading, and raving, about it, as were the other members of her book club. Isabel said it was ‘okay’ but not her favourite. Which way would I fall? I’m siding with Isabel. I didn’t not enjoy the book, but I didn’t find it a stellar read. It was quite nicely written, but I found the structure fragmented the story, and there was an imbalance in the strength of the multiple storylines running throughout the novel.
Whilst I do not have an objection to parallel storylines, the constant alternating between these two characters hindered my ability to immerse myself in either character’s story. The chapters are very short – one to five pages – so there is very little opportunity to become absorbed by one character’s story before we are shifted to the other character. For me, the Marie-Laure storyline had much greater potential to be engaging than Werner’s. I liked seeing the way her father, and then her uncle, built a world for her that she could touch, feel and imagine. Werner’s storyline I found quite bland. I feel that perhaps Werner’s storyline was to enlighten the reader about military life during the war, in contrast to Marie-Laure’s individual, daily life experiences with the war as a backdrop. Maybe I have read too many war novels and seen too many films and documentaries (I live with some serious war history students) but there was nothing in Werner’s story that I found to be particularly enlightening or engaging. The von Rumpel storyline brought in another aspect of the Nazi regime and its desire to amass a collection of art and artefacts but the characterisation of the infirm von Rumpel was, for me, a little too broadly drawn so that he became a slavering, grotesque monster that was bordering on caricature. One positive aspect to the brevity of the chapters was that it did keep me reading! I found myself thinking ‘okay, one page of Werner (or von Rumpel) then I can get back to Marie-Laure’.
In addition, the book is not linear in its time frame. We start out at day one of the siege of St Malo in 1944, then go back to 1934, forward to day two of the siege, back to 1940, forward to day three, and so it goes on. As with the parallel storylines, I don’t have a problem with non-linear structure in itself but I found in the context of this novel, it continued to further fragment the story and drag out the time it took to reach the real action I was waiting for – how would Marie-Laure and Werner meet? What would be the nature of their relationship upon this meeting?
So… would I recommend this novel? It didn’t engage me but loads of people have loved it so perhaps you should give it a go so you can make up your own mind. Yes, at 530 pages it is long, but it is not a difficult read. I’d love to know what you think if you do read it. Or perhaps you already have? Am I being too harsh? It does always feel a little awkward being critical of a prize-winning novel!