Book review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr
Special to the Daily
Fans of “The Book Thief” will find the recent novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, a worthy successor. Set in World War II France, the novel follows the lives of two young characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, children born into opposite sides of the terrible conflict that gripped Europe and destroyed the lives of millions.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris, where he works as lockmaster for the Museum of Natural History. At the age of 6, she becomes blind and life turns understandably more difficult. Her father, determined that his beloved daughter’s life should be as normal as possible under the circumstances, devotes countless hours to crafting a miniature replica of their Paris neighborhood, so his daughter can learn, by touch, the streets that have gone dark to her eyes.
Far to the east lives Werner, who has grown up in an orphanage after losing his father in a coal mining accident. With no family to speak of aside from his younger sister, his future looks bleak, as he is destined to follow his father’s perilous calling beneath the mountain. Instead, the chance discovery of a broken radio fuels his imagination and it becomes evident that he is skilled with electronics; he teaches himself everything he can, in the hopes that it might provide him an alternative to his father’s fate.
The war threatens, moving ever closer, and the story begins to jump through time and place, a fittingly jagged flow that mimics the chaos of war and the deadly blades of the swastika that soon adorns conquered city squares, including Marie-Laure’s Paris neighborhood. As violence and fear spread, and the destruction of valuable artifacts becomes a real possibility, Marie-Laure and her father flee the city, entrusted with a priceless diamond that the museum wants kept safe. The gem is fabled to be cursed, bringing bad luck to everyone who possesses it. The museum also sends out three fakes, hoping to confuse the Nazi treasure hunters, who are claiming any precious items for the Reich — or for themselves.
Marie-Laure and her father flee to St. Malo, on the untamed northern coast of France. The city is isolated on a wild spit of land that juts into the sea, and stone ramparts circle the narrow streets. There, Marie-Laure and her father hide with an uncle, hoping to elude the eyes of the greedy Germans.
While she sets about learning the feel of her new home, Werner has gotten his wish, his abilities having been noticed by the Reich. He is accepted into the notorious training corps for the Hitler Youth, having passed the stringent physical examination with the approved eye and hair color. He trains willingly, though his heart does not swell with pride when German advances are made in the war.
He sees only misery and terrible visions of the violence he must perpetrate.
Chosen to assist in routing out the growing French Resistance by tracking their radio communications, his path leads him to St. Malo, where Marie-Laure’s uncle has taken to utilizing a forgotten radio in the attic to communicate codes and messages to the French fighters.
Doerr uses the tragic fire bombing of St. Malo by the Allies as the axis point where Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives intersect. It is in these moments, knitted throughout into the narrative, that the story is the most engrossing.
All through the book, there are many references to sights seen, eyes looking and visions seen, and not always in reference to the blind girl. For her, of course, the lack of sight during wartime is terrifying, and the author deftly conveys that unimaginable horror.
Beautiful and evocative, “All the Light We Cannot See” is a tale of a bygone era that feels fragile, as vulnerable as the two young souls seeking redemption and solace in an unforgiving world.
The words haunt, and the swirling eddies of scenes are cinematic, coming together into that moment when all things happen at once, at that sweet convergence where the melancholy beauty of life dwells.
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