I’ve wanted to read this one for a while, and so was glad to have the new prize category to push it to the top of the tsundoku pile. This book was excellent – complex, well researched, engaging characters, surprising twists, and clever connections.
Briefly, set primarily in WWII Europe, the novel tells the stories of two main characters – Marie-Laure, a blind French girl in Saint-Malo, and Werner, a German boy/soldier with exceptional radio skills. The stories are told in parallel, mostly alternating very short chapters so you have the true sense of things happening simultaneously but separately and see the slow advance of the intersection of the stories as believable and logical. Occasionally, there are a few other characters with their own chapters, and these are very well placed and spaced throughout to add to the drama of the story. In the end, all of the characters come together in ways that, in a shorter or less deft novel, may have seemed contrived. Here, it is natural and fluid and satisfying.
The title comes from this phrase that appears a few times in the story: “really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” For Marie-Laure, she cannot see, but in her mind she can see and experience colours. For Werner, learning about radio waves, the light – the communication, information, knowledge that comes over the radio – isn’t seen but it is still there in those invisible wavelengths on either side of the colour spectrum. Ultimately, it is this invisible light – all that we cannot see – that brings the stories and characters together, but also that defines and directs their lives.
Doerr is a great storyteller, providing the right amount of detail and explanation to ensure understanding without overwhelming with historical context, graphic detail, or editorial comment. The story focuses on the characters and their lives, and the historical context provides the stage rather than the purpose of the novel – it’s not about the war, it’s about the people. The reader can see and hear and smell what the characters are and are experiencing, and is drawn into that world and all its joys and horrors. The resolutions of the story lines is surprising and well done.
Such a sweeping story with so many small-world-type linkages could feel forced but Doerr is adept in keeping it believable. And why not? We all have those experiences of small world connections that would likely seem unbelievable as narratives or plots but are completely real and believable – even if surprising – in our own worlds and lives. All that light we cannot see but is there, connecting us to others and making our large world small.
Perhaps it is part of the genius of this prize-winning work that it is also highly accessible. The stories are complex but not unnecessarily so, and the language and vocabulary is not complicated. So while not exactly pedestrian, it is definitely not what I’d consider “hard” literature. It is an excellent novel that would appeal to many readers. Perhaps that’s why it is both a Pulitzer winner and a grocery check-out book – it works for everyone.
Fate: pass along to another reader to enjoy.