Sometimes I am so enthusiastic about a book that I can barely rein myself in and write about it. All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books. It’s a Russian Doll kind of tale, with stories inside stories, threads and more threads to tease apart, and connections you sense but can’t quite grasp. Anyone looking for a good read is in for a treat. There are good guys, really really bad guys, a huge diamond, and a Rapunzel-like maiden in a tower. And if you are an attentive reader like me, you’re going to love it.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a beloved Parisian daughter who goes blind in 1934 when she is six. She navigates her life through sound and touch, fleeing Paris just ahead of the occupation to live with people who love and care for her in a fairytale village called Saint-Malo, on “the farthest windowsill of France.” Werner Pfennig is a German orphan whose only bits of luck are Schnee hair, and Himmelblau eyes – snow and sky blue – and a genius for the mechanics of the radios which will play a crucial role in the war. His talent is such that he can work in the dark, relying upon touch and the sound of static as he toils for the Nazi war machine. Their shared dependence on these senses is our first clue of their shared destiny.
Marie lives in the company of the “Old Ladies’ Resistance Club” of Saint-Malo, a group of fierce and colorful housewives fighting the Nazi occupation. Werner bounces over frozen dirt roads in the back of a truck as he directs his superior toward Resistance hideouts in Germany, Poland, Russia and France. As they home in on their doomed targets, Werner is haunted by an endless loop of his sister’s voice asking “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” In Saint-Malo, Marie listens to the Old Ladies and wonders “who will cave, who will tattle, who will be the bravest.” Their convergence is inevitable, but you must be patient. As in many important elements of one’s life, the story is in the journey, not the arrival.
By telling the story in the present tense, Doerr creates a breathless pace, and his lyrical style is the perfect foil for a story about war. Knowing World War II has been covered countless times in graphic detail, Doerr writes a few choice scenes, mostly with Werner as he moves from schoolboy to soldier. He has a genius for depicting the fear that encases every character, but he largely avoids the horror – striking the perfect narrative balance of neither too much nor too little. It’s enough. We get it.
The Attentive Reader Will Note: This book is a dream for anyone who loves subtext. Look for repeated sensory references amongst several characters, especially touch, sound, taste and scent. Vision – both literal and metaphorical – is also crucial. Triangulation plays major role, first with Werner as he hones his radio skills, and later as a deadly triangle of characters meet in Saint-Malo. The 1944 Allied bombing of Saint-Malo is true, and Doerr places us in the midst of it. Throughout the book, characters examine their complicity in World War II; these scenes especially offer readers an opportunity to do the same as Allied planes bomb this perfect village into near oblivion.
Note: I recommend you google images of Saint-Malo before you read the book. It will enhance your experience dramatically to see it.