Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Originally posted at Guys Lit Wire. Not the review this book deserves — I could write a paper about the use of symbolism in AtLWCS alone, and I’m sure plenty of English majors will — but I’m fighting off a head cold so it’s the review that it gets. Y’all should read this book.

Boise, ID doesn’t have too many major league celebrities, so it made some pretty big waves when our resident author Anthony Doerr hit the bestseller lists and then proceeded to win the Pulitzer for his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

Me, I’m a skeptic. The more hype something gets, the more reluctant I become to jump on the bandwagon. Not only that, but I’ve long betrayed my English major roots by doubting the readability and enjoyability of books that earn major awards. Consequently, I had no immediate plans to pick up the prize-winning WWII novel that everyone in town claimed to be reading until my book club named it as the choice of the month. Even then, I put it off until almost too late, and then began reading immediately to try to beat the clock.

Except… I couldn’t put it down.

All the Light We Cannot See takes place in France as it is occupied by the Nazis, and follows the lives of two children as they grow to young adulthood. The first is Marie-Laure, the French daughter of a locksmith, and the victim of severe cataracts that rob her of her eyesight by the time she is six years old. The second is Werner Pfennig, a German orphan with an uncanny ability to understand machines, which develops into a talent for radio repair that propels him into an exclusive military school for the Nazi elite. Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father, who hides a dangerous secret; Werner becomes a soldier for a cause he doesn’t embrace but lacks the wherewithal to resist. Her fascination with a clandestine radio transmitter, and his obsession with broadcast, tease at intersection.

Finally, inevitably, their paths cross in a French port town in 1944.

This is not a romance, except perhaps in a classical sense. Rather, it is a beautifully-crafted and engrossing window into two aspects of WWII life that most Americans don’t even know that they don’t know. Understanding how the war affected those who were neither Nazi oppressors nor Holocaust victims is priceless, but the truly great thing about this novel is how it lets the reader glimpse the humanity of some of WWII’s monsters. Doerr is no apologist, and in fact the majority of the Nazis he portrays are truly beastly — but Werner’s path toward becoming a Nazi soldier is a tragic and illuminating example of how nice, normal young men got swept up in an inexorable movement.

World War II continues to be a subject of great attraction to young American men, and a much-studied era of history in the schools. Anyone with an interest in this time or this war should take this skeptic’s word for it and run, not walk, to the nearest available copy of All the Light We Cannot See. And that goes for scholars of literature and composition, too — you’d almost think this guy won awards for his writing ability or something.

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Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The-Guernsey-Literary-and-Potato-Peel-Pie-Society The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of my favorite things about a historical fiction or narrative nonfiction book is when it sheds a beam of light into a previously unknown corner of something that you thought you already knew all about.

For example, I thought I pretty much had World War II down. Between personal reading, film, and the fact that WWII was pretty much the only thing we seemed to learn about in history class, I thought I had a pretty good overview of the time period. And then along comes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, telling a story that I’d never heard before: the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, specifically Guernsey, and what it was like to try to survive under conditions that I’d never associated with that part of Europe.

The protagonist is Juliet, a British woman in her 30s whose life and writing career are at a turning point. WWII is recently over; she’s just become a bestselling author but is anxious to try a different style of writing; her apartment and all her possessions have been bombed; as a single woman in the 1940s, she’s beginning to wonder if she ought to consider finding herself a husband. Intelligent, sassy, warm, and independent, she is soon swept up in two different worlds: the dazzling cocktails-and-dancing world of a wealthy American suitor, and the quieter charms of an eclectic group of readers and survivors on the island of Guernsey.

Through correspondences between Juliet and members of the delightful supporting cast, the reader falls in love with Juliet’s London friends, the people of Guernsey and their resilience, and even the dashing but possibly dastardly American. Shockingly, a degree of affection for some of the German occupying forces begins to develop as the authors reveal their humanity, reminding the reader that many soldiers end up fighting wars in which they don’t believe. That’s something that I hadn’t really experienced in other WWII literature; the temptation to draw one’s enemy as a caricature is generally overwhelming. On the other hand, this book also exposed me to Nazi atrocities that I’d never heard of before, through the story of one of the founding members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Ultimately, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a book about people who love books, and about their power to bring people together and keep them going when the going seems not only tough but even impossible. It’s about the power of individual stories to illuminate the truth about communities. Sure, it’s also about WWII, and it’s also a romantic tale (Will Juliet give in to Mark’s protestations of love? Is Sidney truly not Mark’s romantic rival? Is there someone entirely different waiting for Juliet in the wings?) but at its heart, this book is about literature and how art can shape and save your life.

I’ll admit that it took me a little while to succumb to this book’s charms. The January pick for my book club, it had received rave reviews from a startling number of my bookish friends on Goodreads… and I just didn’t get it. At first. The biggest stumbling block for me — the fact that this is an epistolary novel (written in letter form) — was actually a selling point for many readers. Having to wait for character traits, relationships, and background information to unfurl through a series of notes, telegrams, and letters threw the brakes on for me, but once I had the major players fleshed out in my imagination, the novel really took off and I began to find the format more enchanting than distracting.

It’s a perfect choice for a book club, and a great recommendation for any aficionado of history or literature. I’ve already passed my copy to my mom, who loves great historical fiction, and would like to get it into the hands of my fellow English teachers. I’m hoping they might be as amused as I was by the multitudinous (but not annoyingly so) literary references, and by the names of the protagonist and her eventual love.

(Endnote: It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I took some time to research Guernsey. I’d been under the impression that it was a British island and that its citizens were British, but it’s actually a British Crown dependency — the responsiblity, in terms of defense, of the UK, but not actually a part of it. Geographically, Guernsey is much closer to France than it is to England, and both languages are common there as well as some small regional dialects. It consists of six islands with a total size of 24 square miles, and today about 63,000 people call Guernsey home.)