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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner - "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

Fall is the season for book awards.  The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature are all awarded in the autumn – and those are just the major fiction awards.

I’ve already posted the shortlist for the Man Booker (September 15), the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller (September 9), and the longlist for the National Book Award for Fiction (September 17).  The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalists will be announced on September 29, the Governor-General’s nominations will be announced on October 7, and the Nobel Prize for Literature recipient will be revealed sometime in early October.

One 2015 award that has already been presented – before I started my blog – is the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  This year it went to Anthony Doerr for All the Light We Cannot See.  Here’s my review of that book:

  4 StarsWith its examination of what war does to ordinary people, especially two children, this book has some heartbreaking scenes, but it is entirely absorbing, a wondrous read. In alternating chapters, the novel focuses on Werner Pfenning, a German orphan, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in Paris.

 Werner is a science prodigy who proves especially gifted in his understanding of electrical circuits. This gift allows him to escape life in the coal mines and gets him into an elite Nazi school where he receives military training and advances his knowledge of radio mechanics. He becomes adept at finding the senders of illegal radio transmissions and so is sent by German army hierarchy to various parts of Europe, eventually arriving in St. Malo shortly after the D-Day invasions just as the siege of the town begins.

Marie-Laure is also a science prodigy of sorts; she becomes fascinated by marine life after being exposed to the displays at the Museum of Natural History where her father works and to books such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. In 1940 when the Germans occupy Paris, she leaves the city with her father and travels to St. Malo to seek refuge with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit suffering from shell shock from WWI. As he had done in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father builds a detailed scale model of St. Malo so she can learn to navigate the town which is her home for the duration of the war.

Anyone familiar with Nazi atrocities has asked him/herself how the German people could commit those acts. Werner’s story illustrates how many Germans had little choice. As an orphan he is destined for work in the coal mines, a fate he dreads since those mines claimed his father’s life. His intelligence wins him a coveted position at a school, but it becomes a hell of a different sort: “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded” (139) where the boys are taught by a man “capable of severe and chronic violence” (168). There he is taught that, “’You will eat country and breathe nation’” (137). Werner is a curious boy who was first exposed to science through radio broadcasts from France and often recalls the broadcaster urging children to “Open your eyes . . . and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48). So “For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity” (276). In the school, however, he is told that he must not question: “’minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds’” (263). The students are told, “’You will strip away your weakness . . . you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause’” (137) and are encouraged to identify the weakest amongst them for punishment or expulsion. Werner, above all else, fears being named the weakest and becoming one of “the old broken miners . . . waiting to die” (476), so he tries to forget his sister’s question, “’Is it right . . . to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’” (133), and does what he is told to do: “Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful” (277). A friend summarizes Werner’s predicament: “’Your problem, Werner, . . . is that you still believe you own your life’” (223).

The characterization of Marie-Laure is equally interesting. She is shy but intelligent and never is she self-pitying. She has to learn to navigate through darkness, both literally and metaphorically, but does not let it circumscribe her existence; she is determined to conquer her fear and make a difference. She answers the question, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” (327) in the affirmative. One woman describes her as an “amazing child” (402) though Marie-Laure does not see herself that way: “’When I lost my sight, . . . people said I was brave. . . . But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life’” (469). Hers, like Werner’s, is a coming-of-age story in the most difficult of times. If there is a weakness in Marie-Laure’s characterization, it is that we see few flaws.

There are other characters that are either too good or too evil. Frederick, Werner’s friend at the school, is of the former category. Frederick “moves about as if in the grip of a dream . . . [his] eyes are both intense and vague” (184) and “He sees what other people don’t” (163). He is the one cadet who refuses to do as the commandant orders, his fate illustrating what happened to those who refused to behave like ostriches. Sergeant Major von Rumpel is of the latter category in that he has no redeeming qualities. In fulfilling his job, he is ruthless. He becomes the stereotype of a Nazi officer. To make matters worse, von Rumpel is involved in the search for a diamond, a sub-plot which is largely distracting and superfluous.

An element of the novel that deserves mention is the lyrical style employing numerous poetic devices and figures of speech. Alliteration is used: “Shearwaters skim the ramparts; sleeves of vapor enshroud the steeple” (409). Metaphors abound; bombs dropping are described as “A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries” (148). The occupation of St Malo is conveyed so effectively: “Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. . . . So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished” (347 – 348). Repetition such as “Fog on the sea, fog in the streets, fog in the mind” (288) describes setting, creates atmosphere, and reveals mood. Literary and Biblical allusions appear frequently, usually to develop theme: “’That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’” (449).

The novel’s title refers to one of the themes. In one of the children’s science broadcasts, Werner hears, “The brain is locked in total darkness. . . It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light” (47). The brain has power to create light in darkness, and in the novel characters are occasionally able to see goodness even in the darkest of times, to believe “that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts” (492). The school Werner attends tries to snuff out his human decency but in the end it is recognized that “his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness” (515).

As a child, Werner learns that “the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, . . . mathematically, all of light is invisible” (53). Later, “Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves . . . flying invisibly . . . over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? . . . That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? . . . the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world” (528 – 529). In this novel, the reader, like Werner constantly listening to radio waves, can hear two of the stories stored in the library of invisible light around us.

Despite its weaknesses, this book is a must-read. It will have the reader experiencing a gamut of emotions: sadness, anger, joy. It is a beautifully written story about people caught in a time when “history has become some nightmare” (284) and people’s potential is misused: “What you could be” (459).