The Pulitzer Prize Thumbnails Project: 2015 - 2019

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2015 - Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Set in France and Germany, before and during World War II, Anthony Doerr's novel is very conventional despite a litany of literary tricks: It's written in the present tense, with many short sentences and short chapters that play like impressionistic snapshots, moving back and forth between the novel's two protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner. This presumably holds the attention of fidgety readers. Or maybe, like any good wartime thriller, it simply forces you to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. It's enjoyable to read, albeit somewhat like watching a war movie in print.

Click Cover To Enlarge The story opens with a cinematic flash forward that takes place on "7 August 1944," as Allied planes bomb the occupied rural French town where Marie-Laure and Werner have come to live - she in hiding, he at war. Doerr returns to this time and place about every 100 pages, as if to remind us to be patient because the good stuff is coming

The main story opens in 1934 and unfurls the destinies of its young central characters, who will meet a decade later. Marie-Laure, blind by age 6 from congenital cataracts, lives in Paris with her father, a museum locksmith who teaches her to navigate the streets from his work to their home by building a detailed model of the neighborhood. Werner, age 7, is a self-taught electronics and math prodigy who fixes a tattered old radio and begins to discover the sounds of a fascinating outside world, including a new Germany on the rise. The Reich eventually puts his gift to good use (for them), although he's a reluctant patriot, and his every "sieg heil" rings hollow.

In Marie-Laure and her father, we witness the lives of the displaced; in Werner, we see the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Both threads allow Doerr to document the everyday cruelties of the Nazis. There's also a plot about a valuable but cursed gemstone from the museum that Papa carries with him, and the patient and ruthless Nazi jewel expert tracking it down in a race against time (he's dying of cancer). The bearer of the stone lives for ever, its legend tells, but all who know him suffer horrible fates. It's an unnecessary flourish, and an overarching metaphor in a book rife with them (boiling frogs, diseased diamond hunters, et al).

For me, All the Light We Cannot See evokes distant memories of Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), albeit less muscular in its prose. Doerr tells his story with detail that's either absorbing or exhausting, depending upon your taste (after a rainstorm, "drops falls like seeds from the tip of her umbrella"). We know how the meta-story ends, and all that remains to wonder is what will happen to Marie-Laure and Werner (and the gem). So you may find yourself growing impatient, knowing the two young protagonists will eventually collide, and that Doerr will finally answer his one open question.

2016 - To Be Announced on Monday, April 18, 2016

ęCopyright 2015
By Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh