Anthony Doerr’s remarkable novel All The Light We Cannot See squarely confronts the daunting task of illuminating the horror of World War II in a compelling and fresh way, concentrating on a human story that touches the emotions and disturbs the soul. At the heart of the story is a blind French girl (Marie-Laure) and an orphaned German boy (Werner) who are drawn together during the War.
As a boy, Werner listened to the science broadcasts of Marie-Laure’s grandfather who asked children how “does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” Creating light in darkness is a powerful theme prevalent throughout the book. When Werner is given the “opportunity” to escape a future in the mines and attend an elite Nazi school for youth, he is introduced to eugenics and the kill-or-be-killed values that threaten to snuff out Werner’s decency, “light” and goodness.
Although much of the book is dark and the situation grim, there are many scenes that convey the underlying wonder of life, the beauty of loving relationships, and the bravery that human beings are capable of in the face of hardship and war. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father is inspiring. Marie-Laure’s mother died in childbirth leaving her in her father’s care. Cataracts cause her to become blind at the tender age of six. Her father brings her to work with him everyday at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. For her birthday each year he buys her a braille book and builds elaborate wooden puzzle boxes which Marie must solve and open to find a hidden treat. To help Marie-Laure navigate the city of Paris and eventually Saint-Malo, her father constructs a wooden replica of the city. His love makes Marie-Laure into a good and brave soul…and into a survivor.
Secondary characters add some depth and colour to the story. One of my favourite characters is Madame Manec, the housekeeper at Marie-Laure’s uncle’s residence. She brings the bereft girl out of the house to experience the sensory joys of the ocean. They joke about taking a pseudonym, and Madame Manec makes Marie-Laure laugh with her choice: she would like to be known as “the Blade.” Madame proposes to her friends that they engage in some resistance activities – old ladies who rearrange road signs, put goldenrod in flower arrangements, and paint a stray dog the colors of the French flag. Their scheming makes Madame Manec feel young again: “like a little girl with stars in my eyes.” Any laughter in wartime is refreshing indeed.
One of the most magical elements of the author’s lyrical style and his ability to authentically capture a world as experienced by someone who is blind. Marie-Laure relies on all her other senses to thrive in a world that, particularly at that time, was not kind to the blind. Marie-Laure is alerted to the presence of the evil German Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, and Doerr captures the scene with his admirable sensory style:
Traces of the German’s smell hang in her bedroom: an odor like vanilla. Beneath it something putrid. She cannot hear anything beyond the rain outside and her own pulse discharging in her temples. She kneels as soundlessly as she can and runs her hands along the grooves of the floor. The sound of her fingertips striking the bucket’s side seems louder than the gong of a cathedral bell.
That leads me to the central reason this book is a bestseller – it delivers a suspenseful and engaging story. The narrative perspective switches between characters, the story jumps back and forth through time, and the reader anxiously waits to learn the fate of Werner and Marie-Laure who are trapped in Saint-Malo. The city is under siege by Allied bombers intent on destroying the German occupying forces. Marie is hiding the Sea of Flames, a valuable and dangerous jewel (there is a legend associated with the diamond) from the Museum of Natural History. Her hidden treasure makes her a target, as do the radio transmissions from her war-time home. Marie-Laure’s future is tied to Werner, as his expertise in building and fixing radios has led him to the war-time position of tracking the resistance (who are sending transmissions to their enemies).
The perfect book club title, this book raises some challenging discussion questions about the line dividing good and evil for people from every nation, life from the perspective of a blind person, what makes a person put themselves at risk, and the significance of all the light we cannot see. I highly recommend this book, and encourage you to borrow a library copy or a book club set for your book club.
If you like this book, I recommend:
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The extraordinary New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture, Markus Zusak’s unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul. It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist-books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time. – Publisher Summary