Anthony Doerr‘s novel, All The Light We Cannot See is a book so rich in detail that instead of reading, it felt like I took up residence in the pages. Initially, I was put-off the novel from some brief descriptions I read that described it as a love story between a blind, French girl and a German soldier during World War II. It’s not a love story in any classic sense of the term. If All The Light We Cannot See is a love story, then it is a love story between a few individuals and all that makes humanity beautiful and curious.
When I think of the characters in the novel, Marie-Laure and Werner, I think of a binary star, “a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common barycenter.” ((Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_star)) What is that center of mass between which Marie-Laure and Werner orbit? It is the beauty of Marie-Laure’s grandfather’s voice played over radio waves. It’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It’s curiosity, a desire for something other than war, it’s questioning and seeking. It’s the Sea of Flames. There’s a commonality in spirit that Marie-Laure and Werner share.
The novel opens in 1944 as Saint-Malo is about to be bombed. We briefly meet the characters and then the next section starts in 1934. The few opening mini-chapters hooked me. I was mesmerized. In moving the story back ten years, we see Marie-Laure and Werner growing up in their respective cities and towns. In Paris, the reader inhabits Marie-Laure’s world, experiences the loving relationship with her father, and the many people in the museum who act almost like relatives. Marie-Laure is exceptional.
Werner is exceptional as well, though his intellect is focused on radios and mechanics. I was surprised to find that I cared so much for a character who becomes a Nazi. However, we see Werner’s path from inquisitive, kind, helpful boy to inquisitive, defensive teenager looking to belong. Werner can escape his fate growing up in a mining town, but that means a specialized school for Hitler Youth. Parts of these chapters are brutal as the indoctrination of the boys takes place. However, Werner excels in his area of study: radios.
Whether it is a punishment or simply a demand for more soldiers, Werner is sent off to the war zone. His job is to track enemy radio broadcasts and pinpoint their positions. Then the men in his patrol kill the partisans. What does the use of Werner’s gifts in this way do to him? As the novel progresses, we see someone moving farther away from their childhood, farther away from what they loved.
For Marie-Laure, she rides out the occupation in Saint-Malo with her great uncle and his platonic companion. I want to say maid, but she’s a cook, a caretaker, a friend, and so much more. As in Paris, Marie-Laure seems to bring people together. Is it because they see her as bravely facing the world while blind? Or, is it the lightness of spirit and the depth of her imagination that rallies adults to her corner? Another quote from her grandfather and great uncle says, “Open your eyes before they close forever.” It’s cliche, but in her blindness, Marie-Laure sees so much of the world.
Beyond the plot of the novel, All The Light We Cannot See is a joy to read as each page brings sentences that are beautiful in their descriptions. I lingered toward the end of the book, because I didn’t want it to end. The characters are engaging. The world is harrowing. The novel is simply wonderful.