I’ve written several reviews of YA fantasy over the last few months, so I’ve decided it’s time to delve a bit into my other favorite genre: historical fiction. Although library systems may file them separately, fantasy and historical fiction actually complement one another quite well. In my experience, fantasy works its best spell when it contains echoes of real historical cultures and events. Conversely, historical fiction is enriched when the author draws on the legends that lie at a culture’s heart–or at the very least, touches on deeper currents of meaning beneath surface events.
Anthony Doerr’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All The Light We Cannot See, draws on both these genres. At first glance, it’s a meticulously-researched book that revolves around World War II. But there are many other themes at play. With skill reminiscent of Charles Dickens, Doerr masterfully weaves together the lives of a blind French girl and a German radio technician, along with an array of other colorful, unforgettable characters. Glimmering through it all is a mysterious diamond known as the Sea of Flames. The gem–almost a character in itself–once belonged to an Eastern prince, and carries an ancient curse. According to legend, its possessor will be blessed with eternal life…but at a terrible cost to those around him.
Although All The Light is labeled as adult fiction, and deals with many harsh realities, it’s one that mature teens can enjoy and learn from, too. Over a year after reading this tale, its scenes and characters continue to haunt me: a mark of a truly great novel. It’s not a “feel good” book. It’s full of heartache, with an ending that is bittersweet at best. But it’s also suffused with beauty and light.
The chief male protagonist is Werner Pfennig, who grows up with his younger sister Jutta in the smutty world of a German mining town. As an impoverished orphan with little access to education, his future seems bleak. Once he reaches the teenage years, Werner knows he’s slated for the coal mines, where he’ll probably die like his father before him. But Werner has a bright, inquiring mind, and a gift for all things mechanical. He collects junk parts and creates all kinds of inventions, including a refurbished radio. The radio opens a wider world for him: a world of music and ideas. His favorite program is a show about scientific marvels, broadcast all the way from France. He begins to dream of an alternate future as a scientific engineer. When he is accepted into one of Hitler’s elite training programs for gifted youth, he seizes on the chance as his ticket to freedom.
Across the border in France, Marie-Laure lives with her father, a locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. As a young girl, she begins to lose her eyesight, and is tempted to give way to fear, curling up inside herself as her vision fails. Her father, however, teaches her courage and resilience, and constantly draws her attention to the beauty and wonder of the world around her. When German troops attack Paris, Marie-Laure and her papa flee to her great-uncle’s home on the coast of France. Using her uncle’s radio equipment, Marie-Laure begins to secretly take part in the French Resistance movement.
Werner, on the other hand, has more in common with the moon. His hair is white-blond, his eyes pale blue. Many episodes of his storyline are set at night or in winter, and in place of bright colors, Doerr paints the stark contrasts of tow-haired children and black coal dust, shadowy forests and starlit snow. The stages of Werner’s story are marked by the phases of the moon, and the music of Debussy’s Claire de Lune serves as his touchstone, leading him back to light and hope.
As the orbits of these characters converge, there’s an almost unbearable sense of desperate expectation. It’s clear to the reader that Werner and Marie-Laure have each unknowingly become a lifeline for the other. Without the other’s help, their flickering light will be extinguished.
Where does the Sea of Flames fit into all of this? Like Tolkein’s Ring of Power, the diamond plays the role of an object of desire, tempting the protagonists to take the easy way out, rather than stay in the fight. The Sea of Flames is a perilous treasure. Its faceted surface gives the illusion of light. But as Marie-Laure and Werner must realize, a selfish life grasped at others’ expense is really no life at all.
Sometimes the only way to find your life is to lose it for the sake of your friends.