“Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a vivid, lyrical and thoughtful writing of a truly somber subject. The story draws you in emotionally, and the themes of war, choice, fate, and perspective are thought-provoking and powerfully rendered through characters that are fascinating, engaging and compelling. I found this one a challenging read. In some ways the prose was very dense– I often found myself needing to pause and take time to ruminate, and it required attentiveness throughout. Hence the length of time it took me to get through it.
Alternating chapters between a girl in France, Marie-Laure, who is blind and a boy orphan, Werner, in Germany, who fixes radios and is an engineering/inventing savant the story quickly draws you in.
Shy but courageous and resourceful, Marie-Laure has learned to navigate the streets of her neighborhood with the help of a wooden scale-model made by her father. He also sharpens her mind by hiding birthday gifts in intricate puzzle boxes that he carves.
Werner is sent to a special academy for talented German youth. We know the paths of Marie-Laure and Werner are set toward each other, but the slow unfolding of the somber story is handled in a way that reveals some of where it’s going but not all.
It was a bit long, but never difficult to read. Marie-Laure and Werner are both deeply inspired by science, but in different ways – Marie-Laure grows up with an intimate knowledge of natural history, shells, and sea snails through her father’s occupation. Werner has an innate ability to figure out how things work. I found his challenge – caught between poverty and opportunity through the Reich compelling. I think the descriptions of the blind girl, her loving father, and her damaged uncle were very well written.
Near the end of the book, Doerr moves the narrative to the 70s, some twenty-five to thirty years, after WWII. One particular quote that really hit home, “Every hour someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”, will stick with you.
As an international bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Awards, and has been named a best book of 2014 at the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, et al, it is one of my favorites of the year. This would make a great book club read.