So what happened? Well, All the Light We Cannot See tells the parallel stories of Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc. The “present” of the novel takes place in 1944 when Werner and Marie-Laure are both holed up in the walled city of Saint-Malo during a stretch of allied bombing. The story flashes back to 1934, recounting their childhoods (Werner spends the most of his either in an orphanage or a Nazi military academy, Marie-Laure spends hers in hiding) and slowly picks its way forward, toward their inevitable meeting in 1944. There’s also a rare gem (which may or may not be cursed) Marie-Laure’s father was given possession of from the museum he worked at and a German officer determined to locate the treasure before his tumors kill him. Doerr occasionally shifts the narrative back to 1944 to check in with their present selves and to inch Werner and Marie-Laure closer together.
Mostly, the time jumps are minimal and easy to follow – we’re hardly talking Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life in terms of chronology I could barely keep up with. In fact, I rather enjoyed the first three or four hundred pages (at first), even if the characters were flat and static. Here – I can describe them for you right now. Werner: white hair, small for his age, likes to build radios. Marie-Laure: blind, likes Jules Verne, wants to go outside. That’s it. They never progress beyond those initial features. In fact, their convergence was so fleeting and pointless; I basically read the last 100 pages in shock, not willing to believe that was it – my rage growing with every turn of the page. I think that’s my biggest gripe with the novel. The little action the characters were involved with seemed so empty because I didn’t feel like I knew them well enough to understand the choices they made. It was like watching two people from a great distance. I could see their movements, but didn’t really have any explanation for it.
All the Light We Cannot See isn’t the first Pulitzer Prize winning novel in recent memory that has valued structure over story (Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge both spring to mind as examples of this). They mask paper thin characters and incomplete story behind the guise of disjointed narrative and call it “Literary Fiction.”
Not a single event in All the Light We Cannot See was concluded in any satisfying way. What happened to Marie-Laure’s father? Arrested in 1941 and the
n all trace of him was lost. Where did the gem go? It’s somewhere, I guess. What’s the deal with Werner’s sister Jutta? I have no idea. We spend zero time with her only to have her character close out the novel.
The only praise I can give this book is that if Doerr was attempting to capture the ultimately meaninglessness of life, he did so spectacularly.
My recommendation – life is short, do yourself a favor and watch Mad Max: Fury Road instead.