All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribners, 2014.
Summary: Two teenagers, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, with a gift for radio electronics, are brought together at the end of World War 2 through underground radio broadcasts by her great-uncle of recordings by her grandfather while a dying German Sergeant Major seeks a treasure in the girl’s possession.
I don’t think I’ve been gripped by the “voice” of a writer as I was from the first pages of this book since reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It is a voice that quietly and deliberately creates an atmosphere that evokes the mixture of wonder of two children coming of age and discovering the world and their own loves, the pall of sadness and terror surrounding the German invasion of France, and mounting tension, as a sinister and dying Sergeant Major confiscating treasures for the Fuhrer closes in on Marie-Laure, all alone in one of the few standing houses in St. Malo, days before it fell to the allies in August 1944.
The book opens with the opening of the invasion. Marie-Laure is blind and alone in the house at 4 Rue Vauborel, her great-uncle Etienne having been interned and her father lost or dead in a German prison camp. Werner is five blocks away attempting to find the source of underground broadcasts, which are being made by Marie-Laure’s uncle, shelters and is trapped in the basement of a collapsed hotel.
The story shifts back and forth between the invasion of St. Malo, and a telling of the story of the childhood of these two and the events that brought them together in St. Malo in August of 1944. We learn of a blind girl whose father is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum of Paris and how she learns to find her way around the city from a scale model her father makes. We see her growing love for the creatures of the sea as she reads a Braille version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. We learn of an orphan boy, Werner, who finds and old radio and makes it work, revealing a growing gift for radio electronics. He and his sister tune into wondrous broadcasts (that we learn were made by great-uncle Etienne and Marie-Laure’s grandfather). This is an example of the luminescence of Doerr’s writing:
The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?
Werner’s talents come to the attention of the Reich and he is sent to a school that exists to develop the Aryan super race. He learns triangulation which leads to eventual deployment hunting down underground transmitters. Meanwhile, he witnesses the brutal destruction of his one friend Frederick, who loved birds more than war. During this time Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, the father being entrusted with a precious diamond, the Sea of Flames, and end up with her great uncle Etienne in St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. The remainder of the story traces how the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure come together in St. Malo while tension builds as the sinister and dying Sergeant Major von Rumpel closes in and then occupies the house where Marie-Laure is staying while she hides in the attic accessed by a secret door in the back of a wardrobe.
Doerr gives us a story of beauty, pathos and mounting tension. He explores through the sightless Marie-Laure and the orphan Werner the incredible wonder of discovery, whether of the world of snails and sea creatures, or the fascinations of electronic circuitry and the wonders of science. Doerr portrays the beauty of the love between daughter and father, between brother and sister, and the growing friendship between Werner and Frederick. We see that the most terrible thing about war is the brutality that is oblivious of such beauty and which seeks to obliterate the better angels of our nature. [In this context, it should be noted that there are descriptions of violence and one scene of sexual assault, none of which is gratuitous.]
Doerr’s work won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I would contend that it was utterly deserving of such recognition. Doerr is a master painter with words, with all the strokes falling just as they should. I’m glad for the light it shed in my life.