Werner Pfennig is an orphan who wins a place at a brutal military academy. But on joining the army, he grows ever more aware that his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.
In a walled city by the sea an old man with a radio set creates new worlds without ever setting foot outside. And yet, impending danger will not allow him to remain shut in for ever.
First published: 2014
I obtained my copy of All the Lights We Cannot See in quite an unusual way. One of my teachers brought it to class one day and gave it away to a random person on the attendance list – which turned out to be me! I got around to reading it a few weeks ago, after deciding to use it for the final assignment for that course, and I was really impressed by it! I can definitely see why it won the Pulitzer Prize, that’s for sure.
The first thing that struck me when I started reading was how short the chapters are. Sometimes they’re not even one page long (most of them are at least three pages, though). I quite like short chapters, because it makes a book more accessible, I think, and I really liked it for All the Light We Cannot See, since the narrative voice switches with each new chapter (more or less). One minute you’re still reading about Marie-Laure in France, and the next you’re back with Werner in Nazi Germany. It kept the story refreshing and fast-paced, and I really liked that.
The characters are absolutely amazing, too. My favourite was definitely Marie-Laure, as well as Etienne. They have such rich imaginations, which I always adore in characters. Marie-Laure doesn’t let the fact that she’s blind stop her when it comes to discovering new things and reading amazing books (her father buys her a book in braille for her birthday every year). Etienne is mentally scarred by serving in the First World War, but he slowly starts to enjoy life again when Marie-Laure enters his world. They develop a wonderful relationship, and it was lovely to read about it.
Then there’s Werner, the German boy, who goes to a Nazi military school in order to escape his life at the Children’s House in Zollverein. He’s a really great character as well, and his inner struggle about whether what he is doing is right or wrong was one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. For him, there is no clear dichotomy. Everything is jumbled together and it is hard to make sense of it all. I found this to be one of the strong points of the novel. I imagine that it is not so easy to see everything clearly when you’re actually living it. That was portrayed very convincingly.
The one thing that can make or break a novel for me though, is the writing, and the writing in All the Light We Cannot See is absolutely phenomenal. It had me captivated at all times and there were moments when I just had to stop reading for a second to really enjoy a sentence I’d just come across.
All the Lights We Cannot See is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. It’s a very refreshing World War II novel, which shows not only the tragedy and heart break but also the bright moments within the darkness.