I started reading this for a book group, which I then missed because I had to do something for my son. But by then I was hooked. This was a wonderful book in many ways. In spite of being about World War II and the Nazis, it is not primarily a book about human evil. Rather, it was a hopeful book that expresses a faith in the goodness of the universe, and of the people in it. This is both its strength and, in a way its one weakness.
The author does a good job of getting inside the good characters’ heads and creating sympathy for them. However, I didn’t think he was as convincing with the evil characters, of whom there was only one whose viewpoint he used. There was also a certain similarity to some of his characters, in particular Werner and Marie-Laure. Both of them were intelligent outsiders, listening to the radio to bring them in touch with the larger world. These scenes were all beautifully written in the same poetic language and style, and they seemed to take place in parallel. Perhaps this was meant to highlight that Werner and Marie-Laure were kindred spirits who had some sort of cosmic connection above and beyond the radio, but I don’t buy that. I think it’s much more interesting that their incredibly different lives touch serendipitously in this way.
One thing that bugged me was the author’s switching back and forth between timelines at the beginning. I felt manipulated by the decision to start with the attack, like the only reason for doing that was that in creative writing classes they always tell you to start “in medias res” because that’s supposed to “hook” the reader. I found this tactic more confusing than riveting. I didn’t care enough about the characters yet to care whether they survived the attack or not. Then later I started to care about them very much, and remembering the opening gave me this uncomfortable feeling of impending doom, which doesn’t really go with the theme of the rest of the book, which is hopeful.
Overall, I thought this book picked up and became more riveting as it went along. Adding the 2014 postscript was very moving in spite or because of its mundane content. I got a sense of the scope and ambition of the novel, and of how much the world has changed since the main events of it took place. These people truly lived in another world , one that we are lucky to get a glimpse of through this novel.
On a personal note, this book was especially interesting to me for family reasons. My husband grew up in the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr river area) of Germany, where Werner and Jutta Pfennig grow up in the novel. In 2011 we visited the Zollverein, where Werner listens to and learns to repair radios, during a family visit. The coal and other heavy industry described in the novel is still very much present.
Earlier this year, my father-in-iaw passed away. He was born in 1929, and so would have been just the age of Jutta Pfennig, a couple of years younger than Werner. While still a teenager, he was captured by the Russian army and spent the time the novel takes place as a POW in Siberia. Last Thursday, October 8 2015, would have been his 86th birthday. We discovered this map in his personal effects.
“They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.”
–Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, p. 559