I loved this compelling, ambitious novel for several reasons: for Anthony Doerr’s ability to look afresh at this well-trodden period in history (World War II); for his ingenious plot and for his haunting, compelling prose and beautiful imagery. But mostly I loved it because it reminded me of the light and grace we are all capable of embodying. Doerr convinces the reader of the innate good in humanity, even at the most cruel and desolate of times.
All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a young German boy, whose paths cross in occupied France during the final, chaotic days of World War II. The short, tightly-written chapters switch between Marie-Laure and Werner’s parallel lives, weaving their journeys from childhood to adulthood seamlessly together as they both struggle to survive the devastation and shattering losses caused by the war.
Marie-Laure goes blind at the age of six. She lives in Paris with her beloved Papa, a widowed locksmith who is the keeper of the keys at the Museum of Natural History. Eight-year-old Werner is a German orphan destined for a lifetime labouring in the coal mines of Zollverein until a broken radio fills his life with other possibilities. A skill for circuitry and science brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth and he is sent to a nightmarish training school for the Nazi military elite.
The onset of war forces Werner and Marie-Laure down opposite paths, inhabiting the opposing worlds of German fascism and the French Resistance respectively. Marie-Laure and her father flee occupied Paris for Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany. The Museum has entrusted her father with a priceless diamond known as the ‘Sea of Flames’, and this he takes with them. Werner, now in the Wehrmacht, is also sent to Saint-Malo to track down the source of Resistance radio transmissions. And so the paths of the two protagonists, plus the fate of the diamond, finally converge to form the heart of the novel. Thriller-like in its intensity, Doerr’s writing keeps the reader guessing until the very end.
All the Light We Cannot See questions whether anyone can live their own life when faced with the terrible, destructive forces of a war. But Doerr shows how the interconnectedness of two seemingly opposing characters, held together by an invisible thread of energy, come to influence each other beyond all else. This is the true meaning of ‘all the light we cannot see’ and the message that illuminates this haunting novel right until the very end.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is published by Scribner (2014), 545 pages.