One of the categories for Popsugar's Reading Challenge for 2015 was "A Pulitzer Prize-winning book," which of course led me to All the LIght We Cannot See. I did scroll through the list of Prize winners for other options, but out of all of them, this one seemed the most interesting to me, and it got great reviews from regular readers in addition to the Prize-givers, so it seemed like a solid option.
And it was beautiful. The book takes place during World War II, with short periods and a slightly longer denouement taking place before and after the war, respectively. There are two main characters. Werner is a German boy/teenager who gets into a prestigious school for his engineering abilities. He can fix pretty much any radio, and is soon designing his own, which the Germans use to hunt down resistance fighters in eastern Europe and in France. The other main character is Marie-Laure, a French girl/teenager who lost her eyesight at a young age and whose father is trusted with taking a copy (or potentially the original) of an infamous diamond with him when he and Marie-Laure flee Paris. Marie-Laure's father is eventually arrested as a spy, and Marie-Laure unwittingly becomes the guardian of the diamond in his absence.
The diamond itself is the axis on which the story spins. It lends a fantasy, or maybe a magical-realism, element to the story--is the diamond magic, or not? Is it a curse, or luck? Doerr never comes out on one side or the other, making it a real either-or that tantalizes at various parts of the story, sometimes seeming one way, sometimes seeming the other, and we're ultimately left having to make our own decisions on the matter. The war-time setting lends atmosphere more than anything else, and is cause for some poignant moments that would not have otherwise happened, but most of the plot could easily take place in another point in time, when a group of people is hiding a diamond from someone else who wants it. That, to me, was good, because it made the story easier to slip into, and while there are some heavy events in this book, Doerr doesn't focus on the aspects of the war that many do: concentration camps, shootings, fighting a resistance. His focus on a teenager who is in the German army, but tries to distance himself from its doings, and on a French civilian--who ends up helping the resistance, but only in the barest of possible ways--makes the story seem more every-day, makes the characters more real. Most of us probably can't imagine what it would be like to find a downed pilot, rescue him from a tree, nurse him back to health, and then smuggle him across the border to safety. However, most of us probably can imagine asking for a loaf of bread and passing off a piece of paper. Small, simple things, but they make such a difference in this story.
The writing here is absolutely beautiful. Doerr's descriptions of Marie-Laure's world are wonderful, and Saint-Malo was clear to me even though Marie-Laure couldn't see it to actually describe it. Werner's parts were lovely, too, though in a more painful way. His attempts to distance himself from his own actions, a blatant dissociation in order to preserve his sense of righteousness as much as possible when he knows that what he is doing hurts people, was painful at times, especially in regards to his friend Frederick and in his estrangement from his sister Jutta. At the same time, though, it's easy to see how boys like Werner would have ended up rabid Nazis. Werner was picked up from an orphanage in a nothing town, saved from a life of mining coal and probably dying young, and instead put into a school where he was treated like he was special, like his knowledge and skills were valued. That's quite a lure, and it's easy to see how he wanted to vanish into that world--though the niggling conscience instilled by his own morals and his sister never quite left him.
The only real complaint I have about this book is that the denouement was too long. This is one of the instances in which I felt there was too much resolution; I would have liked a little more to be left up to our imaginations, instead of multiple time-jumps taking us decades into the future to see where various characters ended up. A little more mystique in regards to the characters would have matched the mystery tied to the diamond, and tied in a little more meaningfully to me. Still, though, a beautiful book, and one I would heartily recommend to pretty much anyone.
4 stars out of 5.