Literary awards can be a poor guide to enjoyable reading. Britain’s Man Booker Award-winners, for example, strike me as a mixed bag at best. Generally, though, a book that wins a Pulitzer and is a finalist for a National Book Award deserves more than a casual look. That’s certainly the case with All the Light We Cannot See, an historical novel long at or near the top of the national best-seller lists, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) 545 pages ★★★★★
Here is a wildly original boy-meets-girl story. Two teenagers are caught up in the frenzy and the mortal dangers of World War II: a German boy who is extraordinarily clever with all things electronic, and a blind French girl who reads Jules Verne. Author Anthony Doerr explores the trajectory of their lives in parallel, moving them inexorably toward a fateful intersection in the book’s surprising climax. Like millions of other Europeans, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig are victims of the war, but their stories are fresh: these are uniquely drawn individuals, each masterfully portrayed by a writer at the top of his form.
The action in All the Light We Cannot See takes place late in the war, two months after D-Day (June 6, 1944), with the Allies poised to turn back the German lines on all fronts. Marie-Laure is hiding out with her father and great-uncle in Saint-Malo, a coastal town near the Normandy beachhead. Werner has been pressed into service in the German army and (inevitably) is transferred to the town as the Nazis rush to reinforce their defenses in northern France.
However, it is the backstory Doerr tells of each of these remarkable young people that forms the backbone of the novel: how Marie-Laure lost her sight early in life and came to live with her doting father in Paris and later in Saint-Malo; how Werner demonstrated genius with electronics as a child and was later maneuvered into making a major contribution to the German war effort. These are full-bodied stories, rich with complexity, detail, and suspense.
All the Light We Cannot See is Doerr’s second novel. He has also written two volumes of short stories and a memoir.
For further reading
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19 as well as on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.
Check out my posts:
- 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up)
- The 10 best novels about World War II
- The 10 most consequential events of World War II
- 15 good books about the Holocaust, including both fiction and nonfiction
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
You might also be interested in Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
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