Largely a dual narration between Marie-Laure Le Blanc, a blind French child, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan, All the Light We Cannot See shifts from a pivotal couple of nights in the Second World War when the allies bombed St Malo and the events that lead up to that night (at least from the perspective of Marie and Werner).
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris, at first, and he is something of a whiz in the old clockwork contraption market (he constructs neat little puzzles for Marie-Laure to open each year on her birthday). He also has a day job in the Natural History Museum, doling out keys and fashioning security for a jewel known as the Sea of Flames (he comes up with a door behind a door behind a door behind a door, each door shrinking Alice in Wonderland fashion, another attraction for young children on tours of the museum). Werner, meanwhile, lives in a home with his sister Jutta under the tutelage of a gentle, easily flustered woman called Frau Elena, a Protestant nun from Alsace. A local mine his threatened future (particularly when the Nazis start to exert their influence locally), it is Werner’s interest in radios and his ability to sense and repair problems that saves him – in a sense. Werner is sent to a school that ostensibly prepares boys for the front line – but again it is his remarkable ability that protects him. His teacher, Hauptmann, talks to him of sublimity – how things change, “the instant things are about to become something else. Day to night, caterpillar to butterfly. Fawn to doe. Experiment to result. Boy to man.” This idea of sublimity (and, I suppose, its opposite, entropy) pervade the book. Switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner – Marie-Laure and her father fleeing Paris, travelling across country to St Malo, Werner befriending a short sighted boy, witnessing the cruelty instilled in his fellow classmates by some pretty severe teaching methods – All the Light We Cannot See draws the reader into a fully realised world, a world in which over the course of what is after all quite a hefty book, the reader comes to be quite invested in.
We know from the outset as the bombs rain on St Malo that Werner and Marie-Laure are in the same location and so the inexorable journey to their meeting has the reader guessing at how it will happen and what it will mean (is this a love story? not quite). There are additional convergences too (we come to learn that Marie-Laure has the Sea of Flames in her possession, in one of the toy houses that her father builds for her, and we are also aware of a sick Nazi who wants the jewel because of its alleged healing qualities) and it is to Doerr’s immense credit that (a) events that we expect to happen never quite happen in the way we’d expect and (b) he still manages to pack satisfying surprises and gently sad postscripts into the overall rollcall of events. As ever with Doerr, though – and readers of his last book, the short story collection The Memory Wall will be able to vouch for this – it is his writing that floods your senses. It is almost olfactory. Here is Werner seeing Marie-Laure for the first time, and we see her too, via writing that absolutely brings us into the moment:
“The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog. She turns right, then traverses half a block and steps neatly through the open door of a shop.”
All the Light We Cannot See is a tremendous read, awash in erudite detail (Doerr is obviously a sponge for arcane detail and so we have characters discussing everything from the construction of ship masts to the making of Audubon’s Birds of America) and yet the erudition never overwhelms the reader experience. It’s a delicate balance, a high wire, and Doerr walks the line with consummate skill.
Any Cop?: There is not a year that goes by without a novelist trying his or her hand at a wartime fiction. If Alison Macleod’s Unexploded was the only wartime novel to read in 2013, then Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is the only wartime fiction you need to read in 2014.