At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and away the most sumptuous, beautiful, and heartfelt book I’ve read in a great while. This is a book to get swept away in.
Werner Pfennig is a boy growing up with no options in a foster home in a German mining village leading up to World War II. Brilliant and full of yearning, he seems bound for a life in the mines where his father was killed. Until, that is, his unique skills with radios capture the attention of Nazi recruiters, who bring him into the Hitler Youth program to begin putting his skills to use. Werner doesn’t quite know or understand the objective behind what he is being forced to do, but his gentle spirit is sickened by the brutality of his surroundings.
Marie-Laure is a French girl who goes blind as a child. Her father works as a locksmith in a Parisian history museum and teaches her to be independent–using elaborate models of the city to teach her how to get around, and teaching her braille so she can get lost in worlds of fantasy like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure’s father is sent on a mission to protect a precious gem in the museum’s collection–a gem that has a powerful curse on it, according to legend.
Naturally, the book is sending Werner and Marie-Laure on a collision course. Most authors would try to pretend that this is a secret, but Anthony Doerr plays with the structure of his novel by opening with scenes of Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in a city on the coast of France as bombs are dropped, flashing back and forth between past and present to show both how they ended up in this situation and what happens when they arrive there. It really pays off, especially since he makes you care for his characters so deeply that you can’t help but feel suspense regarding where they’ll end up by the time you get to the last page. There’s suspense–and not because Doerr is employing narrative tricks, but because you genuinely care about what happens.
With Werner, Doerr gets at a subtle, unique frame of mind about war. Nazis are usually used as stock villains in books and movies, and while they are villains here, we feel for Werner because he is trapped. As a poor boy, he doesn’t have any options. He has no control over his own position in life. War wasn’t something he chose, it was something thrust upon him. He had dreams bigger than the mines, and war was his only option to even attempt to go after them.
Marie-Laure’s subplot adds a dash of magic, but without laying it on thick. The Sea of Flames, the cursed gem that falls into her possession, is the most literal example of this. But even here, Doerr is really just playing with the possibility of magic more than implying that it exists–and that is where All the Light We Cannot See really catches fire. There is an allure to magic and fantasy. You might even throw hope in the same category as magic and fantasy during times as dire as the one in which Werner and Marie-Laure live. In those situations, hope is an audacious but essential thing.
I read this book very slowly because in a weird way I wanted to spend more time with Doerr’s characters. That is probably the greatest compliment I can offer.