Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is a poetic book that flits around the time periods it deals with in Second World War France and Germany. Its main protagonists are in their mid-teens by the war's end and so the book has the feeling of appealing to a more literary young adult market. Then you are hit in the middle of the novel with a rape scene that has nothing to do with the overall narrative. Not just one rape, but multiple rapists and multiple victims. Most of the rape happens off camera, but the scene closes with what amounts to an apology for war-time rape. Why do this? Why in the middle of a soft-focused novel about two seemingly asexual mid teens in war include such a rape scene and a justification for wartime rape? And what was the Pulitzer Prize committee thinking of in awarding this their 2015 prize? The shame is that the book is an interesting, though not compelling, read, and the greater shame is that the author turns into a rape apologist with a scene that adds nothing to the narrative. Although I did read it with the sinking feeling that he thought that this was a way to give some character development to a one of the secondary female characters, which is an even more disturbing possibility than the implicit rape apology.
The novel opens in Saint Malo in Britanny just as the American forces are beginning to bomb and shell the city in August 1944. This introduces us to the two protagonists Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl cowering in her Saint Malo home, and Werner Pfennig, a German army radio operator stationed in the cellar of a Saint Malo hotel. Then we are taken back to the first parts of their lives to appear in the novel: Marie-Laure when she goes blind aged six and a pre-teen Werner's discovery of a skill in fixing radios in an orphanage in the German mining town of Zollverein, near Essen. It is not uncommon for a novel to open with the closing time period and then switch back to begin the story much earlier, but Doerr does something much more inventive. He flits in and out of time periods in a way that slowly builds up the details of the story that brings everything to a head in Saint Malo in August 1944. As he moves from time sequence to another he drops in little gems that help to elucidate something that happened in an earlier chapter. Describing them as gems is apposite as a central plot-line is the fate of Sea of Flame, a diamond that comes accompanied with legends of a blessing for the owner, but misfortune to the owner's family.
The character of Marie-Laure is a fascinating one as she is blind, yet depicted as a very self-sufficient person, rather than as someone to be pitied. She is the hero of this Young Adult story that is so unfortunately delayed with its unnecessary rape apology scene, which does not involve her. Werner is a much more problematic character as he is plucked from his orphanage existence to qualify for entry to a very brutal Nazi school, even though it is presented as less a school for the gifted than as a school for the children of prominent Nazis. His story then changes suddenly to be called up into the army and then the anti-Nazi aspects of the school chapters disappears and his chapters become a war story about a soldier for the Germans, who just happen to be at war with Russians and Americans. That leads to a disconnect that makes you wonder what the point of the brutal Nazi school chapters were all about.
There are several items that are quite unrealistic in relation to the military aspects of the novel (such as the distances covered by one truck or the land-mines scenes), but taken as a Young Adult novel of a literary bent it works well until the narrative is derailed by the rape apology scene.