Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility. – from All The Light We Cannot See, page 49 –
Hitler is marching in the streets and the Nazis move ever closer to France. Marie-Laure, age twelve, lives in Paris with her father who works as a lock keeper at the Museum of Natural History. Marie’s eyesight is lost to her at the age of six, but she is able to navigate the streets like a sighted person with help from her father’s intricate miniature reproduction of their neighborhood. Inside the walls of the museum is a valuable jewel which is linked to a story of immortality and death. Just before the city falls to the Germans, Marie and her father flee Paris…with them is the jewel, or its replicate.
Werner is a young German boy being raised behind the doors of an orphanage in a small mining town. Werner and his sister, Jutta, become fascinated by a broken radio which Werner fixes. They listen late at night to voices from far away. With his talent for electronics, Werner is soon sent to an academy for Hitler Youth – a brutal, terrifying place that prepares him to use his skills to track down enemies of Hitler’s Riech.
In the walled city of Saint-Malo, Marie and Werner’s stories converge as Allied bombs fall. Written in magnificent prose, almost poetic in its narration, All The Light We Cannot See is a magical, searing novel about war, fear, radio, and the resilience of the human heart.
Author Anthony Doerr, who has won numerous literary prizes for his short stories, has written one of the best novels of 2014. He was inspired by the true story of Saint-Malo, a city on the edge of the sea in Brittany, France. In August of 1944, this historic jewel was almost completely destroyed by fire after the United States bombed it. Doerr captures the horror of the attack in his novel, placing the reader in the midst of the inferno.
Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets. -from All The Light We Cannot See, page 95 –
But, this book is less about the war and more about its impact on its main characters: Marie and Werner. Both characters are children who grow up against the backdrop of World War II – one a blind, French girl…the other a German youth whose promising future is threatened by the will of the State.
It was enough when Werner was a boy, wasn’t it? A world of wildflowers blooming up through the shapes of rusty cast-off parts. A world of berries and carrot peels and Frau Elena’s fairy tales. Of the sharp smell of tar, and the trains passing, and bees humming in the window boxes. String and spit and wire and a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams. – from All The Light We Cannot See, page 389 –
Doerr’s narrative moves back and forth in time and switches points of view from chapter to chapter. Skillfully crafted, the story unwinds with a slow tension that keeps the pages turning. I loved the beautiful writing, the loving character development, and Doerr’s ability to show his characters not as enemies, but as humans who desire the same things even though War separates them.
All The Light We Cannot See is a masterpiece of historical and literary fiction…and certainly one of the best books of the year. Readers should not be intimidated by the page count – the book is superbly edited and every page is worth the read.