What I Read: February 2015, Part One



“What you could be,” says one character to another in All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. And perhaps that is thought that weaves through this beautiful, heartbreaking novel. What could all the souls lost to World War II have experienced and achieved if only there had been no war? Because, as the ending of this novel so clearly illustrates, even those who survive are jarred from the path they were on and never really find their way back.

The novel focuses on two characters—one French, one German. It begins one month after the Allied invasion of Normandy as U.S. airplanes drop leaflets urging the inhabitants of Saint-Malo, France to evacuate the town immediately. Sixteen year-old Marie-Laure, who is blind and alone, tries to make sense of what is happening outside her window. Several blocks away, 18-year-old Werner is taking cover in an old hotel.

Then we travel back to the beginning of the story. Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives with her father in Paris, where he works as the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a miniature version of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way. When the Germans invade France, the museum begins to hide its treasures to protect them from the Nazis. Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted with what might or might not be “The Sea of Flames,” a legendary blue diamond with a red center. Marie-Laure is 12 as she and her father leave Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo, where they live with her uncle Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. After Marie-Laure’s father disappears, she is drawn into the French resistance.

Werner Pfennig lives in the Children’s House orphanage in the mining town of Zollverein, Germany with his younger sister, Jutta. They listen to an old radio Werner has repaired. Over time, Werner’s gift with radios earn him a referral to an academy where Germany’s best and brightest boys are sent to be trained for Hitler. He seizes the opportunity as his chance to escape the mines that killed his father, overlooking the brutal practices all around him. After special training, Werner finally is sent to the front to use his special skills to track the resistance. Werner’s assignment finally brings him to Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge and we return to the beginning.

The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner are told in brief alternating chapters. Doerr’s writing is exquisite, filled with beautiful passages—many painful, all memorable. Each sentence is precisely crafted with not one wasted syllable. It is rare that great stories are told by worthy writers. We are fortunate that All The Light We Cannot See is an exception.