I finished Anthony Doerr‘s All the Light We Cannot See some days ago. I’ve let it sit and marinate in my mind before I attempted to pull my thoughts together for this mammoth work.
As everyone says, it it a wonderfully literary, fantastical book with gorgeous sentences that we all wish we had penned. Such as,
She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.
One two three. Four. How many times has she done this? Number 4: the tall, derelict bird’s nest of a house owned by her great uncle Etienne.
A little brown house sparrow swoops out of the rafters and lands on the tiles in front of her. Marie-Laure holds out an open palm. The sparrow tilts his head, considering. Then it flaps away. One month later she is blind.
Figures bicycle past.
Rainwater purls from cloud to roof to eave.
The engine roars and pops; the truck rarely accelerates past walking speed.
I’ve read a number of Doerr’s interviews and know that it took him 10 years to write this Pulitzer prize winning book. I see why.
This epic saga that takes place in France during World War II draws parallels between a fair headed German, Werner Pfennig, and little idealist Marie-Laure Le Blanc, who is blind. Both are still children when we meet them. Both must grow up much faster than either wants, or should have to.
The war eats the souls of all it touches creating untenable situations that cause Marie-Laure and her father to leave their home in Paris. However, Marie’s father works at the Museum of Natural History as a locksmith. He is an amazing creator of locks and boxes and small scale models which he uses to help his daughter to navigate the city around her; complete with storm drains for her to count ensuring she knows where she is at all times. Her father is a genius at this.
The story has several geniuses. One other being Werner. He can fix any radio, or electrical piece of equipment by thinking about it. He can see the issue, or disruption, in his mind’s eye. This talent is what gives him the opening to change his life. We’re not sure if it is a better life as it takes him to Hitler’s school for the training of troops to send into war…
The story revolves around a jewel shrouded in myths, rumor, and conjecture which state that the possessor of the gem would never die. That all the loved ones around the owner would come to their deaths leaving the gem’s owner unharmed…but alone.
At each step further into the plot, this gem peeks it’s lovely faceted head and winks at the reader eluding true understanding until deep into the story. By then, we are so invested in the lives and machinations of the characters in the story the gem takes a very tertiary seat.
As mentioned, Marie and her father must leave Paris and go somewhere safe. The Museum is helping them — but there is a reason. The safe house they are sent to is no longer safe. It is on fire when Marie and her father arrive.
They travel further and go to Marie’s uncle, Etienne. There, they find safety. However, Marie’s father is taken away one day and they never see him again. But he left a new model of Saint-Malo, the town that Etienne lives in. This way, little Marie-Laure can find her way around even if she is not allowed out of the house.
Werner’s story is much more upbeat. He is gaining prominence due to his extreme skill and talent in all things electronic. He finds out he can build anything he is asked to build. He maps it out in his mind, he collects the items needed, does the maths required, then builds it. Werner is amazing! Small for his age but gifted without a doubt. He is taken under the wing of the school’s resident mad scientist. This is the beginning of the end for Werner.
Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories connect via radio waves in a truly artistic kismet manner. I will not remove the joy of discovery for you but know that while the story does take time to unfold and share its richness the journey is worth it. You may need to put the book down and absorb the beautiful elegance of the words, images and the general tapestry of word and storycrafting that Doerr has in store of you. Be that as it may, you will find new insights and appreciation at the end of the story.