Once upon a time, there was a French girl who was enthralled by the creatures that dwell in the sea. In a land far away lived a German boy who was fascinated by the radio waves that travel through the sky. After many years, they finally met in the place where the sea and the sky come together at the far edge of the world.
When you put it that way, All the Light We Cannot See sounds like a fairy tale, which it most assuredly is not. But neither is it a typical World War II novel. Author Anthony Doerr has created something truly extraordinary – a resplendent, utterly engrossing epic that centers not on the conflicts that separate us, but on the universal forces that connect us.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the French girl who lives with her father, Daniel, in Paris. Blind since the age of six, she spends her days at the National Museum of Natural History, where Daniel works as a locksmith. Her favorite retreat is the mollusk laboratory, with its vast collection of intriguing specimens. When war breaks out, Marie-Laure and Daniel flee to his uncle’s home in the city of Saint-Malo on the Breton coast.
Werner Pfennig is the German boy who, along with his younger sister Jutta, is raised in an orphanage in Zollverein, a bleak coal-mining town in the western part of the country. His life changes the day he salvages a broken radio and succeeds in repairing it. Werner’s natural curiosity develops into an exceptional gift for mechanics that comes to the attention of the Nazi war machine. At 14, he is sent to an elite military academy to prepare for service.
Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories unfold separately in carefully crafted narrative segments that move back and forth between the two characters’ perspectives and between the past and present. Readers feel as though they’re following two paths that circle each other, coiling tighter and tighter until they reach their inevitable convergence. The suspense builds with every turn and becomes almost unbearable before it is finally resolved.
Doerr populates Marie-Laure and Werner’s journeys with an exceptional cast of characters: patient, inventive Daniel; haunted, cerebral Uncle Etienne; fiercely devoted Madame Manec; gentle giant Volkheimer. Each is brought to life so completely and so affectionately that it would be nearly impossible to choose a favorite.
Ingenious plot structure and authentic characters notwithstanding, it is Doerr’s gorgeous, imaginative language that makes All the Light We Cannot See really shine. The visual imagery is stunning: When Daniel sees the lights of German planes in the night sky, “…he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.” And when Werner sees Marie-Laure walking to the bakery in Saint-Malo early in the morning, “A million droplets of fog bead up on the fuzz of her wool dress and along the warp of her hair, and the light outlines her in silver.”
Because Marie-Laure is blind, Doerr lavishes special attention on his descriptions of touch, smell and sound, causing readers to feel a heightening of their own senses. When Marie-Laure touches the sand on the beach for the first time, “It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. Tiny slips of wrack.” And when Madame Manec opens the window to let in the sea air, “The wind gusts. In Maire-Laure’s mind, it shifts and gleams, draws needles and thorns in the air. Silver then green than silver again.” Heavenly.
This was hands-down my favorite book of 2014 and likely one of my lifetime top ten. One passage in particular seems to sum it all up: When Werner and Jutta tune in to a children’s science broadcast, they hear a French voice pose an interesting question. “The brain is locked in darkness…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?” I’m no scientist, but I imagine it involves the same creative brilliance that Anthony Doerr employs to illuminate All the Light We Cannot See.