All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Last Summer, customer after customer praised Anthony Doerr’s new novel All the Light We Cannot See. One friend declined an invitation to the reading by Waub Rice and Joseph Boyden as she was only 50 pages from the end of this book and had to finish – telling me “ you’ll understand when you read it”. Well, I’ve read it, and I do.
The novel begins in Paris where the girl Marie-Laure lives with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure has been blind since she was six years old, and in order for her to learn her way about the city her father has constructed a perfect miniature model of their neighbourhood. Between studying the model and walking with her father, counting steps and landmarks, she becomes proficient in finding her way.
When the Nazi’s occupy Paris twelve year old Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris to seek refuge with his uncle Etienne in St. Malo. What Marie-Laure does not know is that her father may have with him a very valuable diamond. Three copies were made and distributed by the museum, hoping to keep the real stone safe throughout the war. The existence of this stone adds an element of suspense to the novel when it becomes the focus of a quest by a Nazi officer seeking treasures for Hitler’s collection.
We also meet Werner Pfennig, first when he is a young boy in Germany, a boy with an aptitude for repairing radios. He listens with his younger sister to radio broadcasts from all over Europe, it seems a miracle to listen to voices from far away. We see the development of the Nazi party, the rise of patriotism as the country becomes prosperous once again. Werner’s skills are noticed and he is selected to attend the National Political Institute of Education #6 at Schilpforta, an elite boys school where he will be educated and trained. Werner is obviously very bright and becomes proficient at detecting and disabling radios. But during his days at school, witnessing, and taking part in, the brutality of life there, he also questions more and more the morality of what he is doing, “every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong?” But he does not protest, he knows it would be the end of him because here the wrong seems right – this is radicalization.
The chapters alternate quickly between characters and time periods, between Germany, Vienna and France. We see life change for everyone as the war progresses. Shorty after Marie-Laure and her father arrive in St. Malo her father disappears, but not before completing a model of St. Malo and teaching his daughter how to navigate about the town. Marie-Laure is left in the care of Uncle Etienne, a sensitive man damaged by his experiences in the First World War. Together with the housekeeper, Uncle Etienne attempts to keep the girl safe.
Things change as the war is coming to an end – the Nazis are in retreat, the British are bombing St. Malo. All is chaos. All of the main players in the novel are now in St. Malo, all are now aware of the others – all are in danger. At this point I can understand someone not wanting to do anything but read to the end.
The denouement are the chapters about life after the end of the war for those who have survived, from 1945 until 2014, when one thinks “every hour someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world”. And, it is the fact that there will soon be no one with direct experience of the Second World War alive, that we need to still write and read about that time.
I found it very thought provoking to read about people who lived in Germany during the war – those who were not Jewish and singled out to be murdered. There were many who found themselves members of the Nazi party or the military, others were simply people who persevered to survive the hardships brought by war. There were good people in Germany and there were bad, as there are everywhere including those like Werner Pfennig who knew right from wrong and could not always do what he knew was right. Of course, if all of these people had refused to allow the rise of the Nazi party the world would be a much different place.
All the Light We Cannot See is a novel about war, about love, about redemption. Reprinted 15 times in hardcover with an early paperback release – a book that will be on all the book club lists in the coming year.