“For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory; the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere . . . ” (325)
The story, told in flashbacks, is set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure becomes blind when she is six; she lives with her father, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris when the novel begins in 1934. There, hidden, in its vaults for the past two hundred years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its center, that will bring misfortune to its possessor.
Marie-Laure’s father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and miniatures—of the streets and houses of Paris. He makes wooden model of the neighborhood so Marie can memorize it by touch and navigate her way. He hones her sense of touch by placing unexpected objects in her hands. The intriguing miniatures teach her, using fingers as eyes, how to navigate her way around the city. She develops a love for reading; ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille up in the attic of her reclusive great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo.
Parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner Pfennig, who and his sisters are orphans living in the German mining town. He has gift for science, and the intracacies of radios in particular. His talent wins him a spot in the brutal academy of Hitler Youth, which trains him to become an elite cadre for the Third Reich. His schooling is evidence of both ambition and brutality of the Nazi national psyche.
The story ziplines back and forth, until Marie-Laure and Werner are converging in saint Malo, on the coast of Brittany, as Werner is probing for a radio signal emitting from her house. Her father has been entrusted with the gem and is arrested. Werner is given the task to locate radio transmission, which brings him to the island, where Marie’s great-uncle Etienne uses his radio-transmitter on behalf of the Resistance.
All the Light We Cannot See is a literary feat: mixing fable,, nature, and mechanical inventions. Doerr’s prose style is lyrical, operatic and relentless, with an attentiveness to details. It is an emotionally plangent tale of morality. As the children’s paths converge, Doerr has created nearly unbearable suspense. Every piece of the back story reveals information that changes the merging narrative with significance. There is this kill-or-be-killed theme, the morality of doing what is right and not what power is bestowed upon one to do.
530 pp. Scribner. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]