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 by Anthony Doerr, an historical novel long at or near the top of the national best-seller lists, was a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Fiction in 2015.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
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 rFrench 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.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) 545 pages ★★★★★
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. But this Pulitzer Prize-winner augurs more great reading in the years ahead.
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Check out How much is a Pulitzer Prize worth?
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.
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