All the Light We Cannot See
Fourth Estate Publishing
‘So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?’
For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.
In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
Anthony Doerr is an American author. His second novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is set in Europe during the Second World War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
We follow our two protagonists, six-year-old French girl Marie-Laure and eight-year old German orphan Werner Pfennig as they navigate the rise of fascism in Europe, inevitably becoming drawn into violence and desperation. Marie-Laure and her father guard the Sea of Flames, a rare diamond sought by the novel’s chief antagonist and jewel expert, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. Together they flee occupied Paris for Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s father is placed under arrest, leaving her alone, blind in a strange city. Brought ever closer to her is Werner, who after initial exhilaration at the scientific opportunities afforded to him by the Wehrmacht, begins to question the Nazi ideology and his own participation in the war.
Doerr sets a brisk pace from the start of the novel. This avoids any drawn out discussion of macro and micro factors behind the outbreak of war but does leave the reader scrambling to catch up – there are eight chapters within the first sixteen pages of the book. It does allow for the protagonists to be placed in immediate peril however, leaving room for their fascinating backstories to develop later.
Other than the frenetic start to the novel, I have a few small stylistic criticisms. I got the impression that Doerr was trying perhaps too hard in the early pages. If I have to stop to look up words such as diaphanous and promontory within the first five minutes of reading then I’m not settling into the narrative. Another factor which knocked me slightly off my stride was Doerr’s habit of moving back and forth between timespans. Although this creates fantastic tension (we move from Werner’s bright beginnings straight back to him being trapped in an airless shell of a house during a bombing raid) it did leave me slightly confused for the first few lines of a chapter. This was exacerbated by the fact that, in Marie-Laure’s case, we are sometimes jumping back and forward to events in the same house. This is a very minor observation however, and perhaps owes more to my bad habit of not reading chapter titles, or in this case dates.
Where Doerr really comes into his own though, is in the characters of Marie-Laure and Werner. I can only imagine how easy it would be to slip into mawkishness here. Marie-Laure in particular is slight, blind, and doted on by her father. Doerr manages to keep her character real though, with bouts of angst and depression littering her time in Saint-Malo. Werner, though, is the real star of the novel. His evolution from big brother destined for the mines, to Hitler Youth recruit, to engineering protegee, to fully-fledged Nazi soldier is handled delicately but without pulling punches. His actions leave him haunted as he searches for illegal radio transmissions across Europe. In Marie-Laure he sees his own redemption along with an opportunity to set right mistakes he has made with his sister and fellow Hitler Youth recruit Frederick. Indeed, his doomed friendship with Frederick makes for some of the most heart-breaking and compelling reading in the entire novel.
Doerr also captures something of the spirit of the resistance in the book. Messages baked in bread, illicit radio broadcasts, and secreted jewels all contribute to a satisfying feeling that the elderly, and in some cases incapacitated, citizens of Saint-Malo are fighting back against the tide. This narrative is at its most compelling when the Nazis are at the height of their power, but still holds significant sway in the last desperate, brutal, vicious days of the regime.
The novel’s title rings true in the final, decimating chapters when Werner meets Marie-Laure, drawn by her radio signals from across Europe. Each has gone through torment to reach this point of intersection, but the reader is left with a feeling that the fates have dragged them to Marie-Laure’s house, where brief respite awaits them before the shattering conclusion of the novel.
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