After seeing this book win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction, I was very surprised to stumble upon it on Netgalley. I requested it rightaway, not knowing much more of the story apart from it being categorised as YA by some reviewers, and that it was about two teenagers: a boy and a girl. So I expected it to be some sort of The Fault in the Stars-experience. Boy, was I wrong!
When I started the first chapter, I was like: “Wait, what? This is about WWII?! Oh maaaaaaaan!”. I’ve read my fair share of WWII books, nothing wrong with those, but I just wasn’t in the mood for THAT kind of book. At all. The proselike kind of writing didn’t help either.
I almost thought I had to put it down, but then decided to plough through it, because, let’s face it, the publisher gave me a free copy. The least I could do was read it, so I could write about how bad it was afterwards.
The strangest thing happened, though: after a couple of chapters I started to LIKE it. A few chapters later, I was sucked in and had to force myself to stop reading or I would’ve gotten some serious sleep deprivation issues. About halfway through the book, I could only think “Omg, 5 stars, 5 stars!”. Which is how much I gave it in the end as well.
This book has two protagonists: Werner Pfennig, a teenage boy from Germany, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a teenage girl from France. Their stories are told in a parallel way, alternating almost each chapter between the two characters’ point of view. It covers the period between 1934 and 1944 mostly.
Part zero kicks off in 1944, and, by the use of flashbacks, we gradually see Werner and Marie-Laure growing up and reaching a crucial point in 1944.
Werner starts off as an orphaned German boy, living in an orphanage in Zollverein (a four-thousand-acre coal-mining complex outside Essen) together with his sister Jutta. At a very young age, he’s already intrigued by science. How does everything work? WHY does everything work? When he finds an old cylinder wrapped in wire, he discovers it’s actually a broken radio and fixes it. It marks the start of his brilliance when it comes to science and being a radio expert in particular. His big dream soon consists of wanting to become a real scientist, but as we can already see at the start (so no spoilers here), this dream didn’t come true. Due to a series of events, he ends up being a soldier in Hitler’s army.
Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, where she lives together with her father, a locksmith who works at the Museum of Natural History (awesoooome!). At the age of six, she becomes blind. Her father teaches her, in very inventive ways, how to take care of herself, and how to survive in the city as a blind girl. When shit hits the fan and the Germans are occupying France, they flee to Saint Malo, where Marie-Laure’s uncle lives. His house comes straight out of a fairytale; very tall and narrow and with hidden spaces! Unfortunately, uncle Etienne suffers from PTSD from WWI, and as a result, has become extremely agoraphobic with occasional psychotic meltdowns; he hasn’t left the house in years.
With the war raging on, you’d think this would already be enough material to fill an exciting book, but there’s more! A red line through the story is a diamond. Not just any diamond, one that supposably has magical powers. He or she whoever possesses it becomes sort of invulnerable. As a side effect, everything around that person goes to shits.
We soon meet Sgt. von Rumpel, a nazi officer who is suffering from cancer and who, for obvious reasons, is obsessed with finding this particular diamond (called the Sea of Flames). The diamond was originally safely tucked away in the Paris Museum of National History, but right before taking off for Saint Malo, Marie-Laure’s father is set with the task of protecting it and/or creating a false trail. The director of the museum made three fake copies and distributed them together with the real diamond. The carriers only know they’re protecting A diamond, but no one has been informed on who carries the real deal. Sgt. von Rumpel is destined to find out by any means. And so, a thrilling hunt is born.
This book is SO good. The chapters are very short, the pace is quick and I found myself flipping pages to the point where I didn’t want to stop every time I started to read it. There’s excitement, grief, joy, cruelty, humour, and you just want to know what happens next ASAP. There’s also an incredible amount of beauty in this book.
To emphasize this, here are some passages I highlighted:
“ And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point. ”
““Did you know, ” says Marie-Laure, “that the chance of being hit by lightning is on in one million? Dr. Geffard taught me that.”
“In one year or in one lifetime?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You should’ve asked.””
“Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger?”
As a final note: I don’t want to spew politics on this blog by any means, but as I was reading All the Light You Cannot See, I was also following the news on the Syrian refugees. It still enrages me that there are (a lot of!) people who say they should go back to where they come from, fouling up our countries and getting more luxury than some of our ‘own’ people who are on welfare. Really, the nastiest things are being said! So, did Europe forget about their own wars? Weren’t we grateful when we were rescued by other countries, other continents? Wouldn’t we hypothetically have fled to Syria back then if that was an option? I don’t want to start a discussion here, that’s really not what this blog is for, but I’m just saying: think about it. We’re all one, essentially, and the earth belongs to ALL of us (or no one if you want to look at it that way).
“The world seems to sway gently back and forth, as though the town is drifting lightly away. As though back onshore, all of France is left to bite its fingernails and flee and stumble and weep and wake to a numb, gray down, unable to believe what is happening. Who do the roads belong to now? And the fields? The trees?”
Five brownies! Highly recommended.
An ARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.