I have often wondered what it was like living in the streets of Paris and Berlin before, during, and after World War II. Ken Follet in his Century Trilogy certainly described it as roaring, hip, cosmopolitan at its height and slowly gray, bleak, and miserable as it declined. Follet’s descriptions certainly ascribed to traditional textbook fanfare, covering parts of national history with fictional characters coming in and out at every opportunity, changing the course of history. His stories felt like a textbook and I absolutely loved it since it was like listening to a history professor without the long drawl. But there were times when I wonder about the ordinary everyman, those who don’t get to sit in the halls of power, the lowly mason, baker, or newspaper boy during that time. In Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”, he embarks on a journey of exploration set in the eyes of two children whose lives are torn apart by the horrors of war.
Set in Paris, the Zollverein, and the provincial seaside town of Saint Malo, All the Light We Cannot See captures the transformation of youth during moments of historical upheaval. The two main characters, Marie and Werner, are thrust into a world very different from their contemporaries. Marie is blind at a young age while Werner lives in an orphanage with barely enough to eat. Their situations force them to live in a world that is rapidly changing, Marie must learn how to navigate the streets of Paris using models that her father makes while Werner learns scientific and mathematical principles, skills that enable them to survive in one way or the other when war tears Europe apart.
The story may sound depressing and at some point I felt truly sorry for the two characters. But in each moment, Anthony Doerr throws a little bit of happiness into his story. He describes little puzzles and games for Marie or the thrill of excitement when Werner begins understanding mathematical and scientific terms and problems. Since the novel switches perspectives between the two characters it’s a bit hard to root for one character or the other, their stories are captivating and I found myself wondering where their lives would lead and how each of them find happiness in the ravages of war.
All the Light We Cannot See is one of the books that surprised me this year and as I end 2015 I am glad that I picked it up. Simple but very humanistic, it touches, tugs and pulls at the heartstrings and makes you feel that despite the happenings around the world, at some point in history there were two children who found a little peace in a gray world.