All the Light We Cannot See

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?

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. At times it is almost lyrical, both in language and storytelling. The sentences are short, so are the chapters, the central characters, a young French girl and equally young German boy, are appealing, intriguing, memorable. …there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together.

They are caught in the horror of World War II. Marie-Laure Le Blanc is the daughter of a skilled locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Werner Pfennig lives with his sister in an orphanage in a German coal-mining town.

When she is six, Marie-Laure becomes blind, her father builds her a scale model of their Parisian neighborhood so she can learn how to navigate its streets. The young Werner, a technology prodigy, builds a short-wave radio and together with his sister they listen to the science tales of a mysterious Frenchman.

When the Nazi’s invade France, the war takes control of their lives. Nothing is the same as before.

Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. …The smoking, ruined villages, the broken pieces of brick in the street, the frozen corpses, the shattered walls, the upturned cars, the barking dogs, the scurrying rats and lice…

Marie-Laure and her father flee to Sant-Malo, where they live in the home of her great uncle, the reclusive Entienne, who turns out to be the Frenchman broadcasting the science tales, as well as coded messages to the French Resistance. Her father builds her another model of the streets of Sant-Malo, but soon thereafter is captured by the Nazis.

Meanwhile once Werner’s scientific skills are recognized, he is sent to a rigorous but cruel, elite Nazi training school. Because he is adept at finding illegal radio transmissions, he is assigned to a team that searches for them throughout Germany and Poland and, eventually, in Sant-Malo.

However, Werner is not at ease at being a Nazi soldier and is sickened by their treatment of his best friend. His doubts express themselves by the acts he doesn’t perform and in the words Doerr gives him on the page.

Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.

Do you see where this is headed?

And looming in the background throughout this tale is a priceless, diamond stone, The Sea of Flames, hidden in a series of locked cabinets deep inside the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted with the stone’s safety, only he and the Museum Director have the set of keys required to unlock the cabinets.

When the Nazis invade Paris, copies of the original stone are made, each one given to Museum staff member, including Marie-Laure’s father. Who has the original? Where is it? A Nazi officer has been searching everywhere for the treasure, including the very house in Sant-Malo where Marie-Laure lives. The stone is said to carry a curse that allows the keeper to live forever but also brings misfortune to those close to the person who has it.

Reading All the Light We Cannot See is an adventure, a long one as it is a 500+ page novel, but from start to finish I found it a genuine pleasure. It will surely be among the best of the year.

…his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.