Boy meets girl in this enthralling story set up before and during the World War II. But it isn’t purely a romantic story to swoon over. All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, page turner that carves scars of various emotions deep into our hearts. Two different lives intersect to represent a suspenseful plot set in Nazi-occupied France and Germany.
Marie-Laure, our main character, is blind. This is where Anthony Doerr worked his magic through his vivid and lively imagination; where upon he brings us into a sensory world only the blind can see. His exquisite prose is as perfect and precise as the gem in the novel, which as the legend says, bestows both curse and immortality to its holders. But Doerr’s words are more immortal than a curse.
Our young blind heroine Marie-Laure LeBlanc has gathered her courage and developed her resourcefulness with the help of her master locksmith father, Daniel. With utmost patience, the widowed locksmith of the Museum of National History in Paris builds miniature wooden scale model of the Britanny town in France just so Marie could learn how to navigate its streets. He also designed cunning puzzles for Marie to solve and sharpen her mind. He then taught her about Braille and from there remained patient in guiding her to and fro the museum.
On the other side of the border- a story simultaneously told as Marie-Laure’s- a young German boy named Werner Pfenning grows up in an orphanage together with his sister Jutta. Werner is a bright child with a prenatural understanding of circuitry, having been able to masterfully tinker radio transmitters and receivers at such a young age. Thought to be sent into the mines and die prematurely, Werner instead goes to a select of technical schools- thanks to his obsession for radio mechanics- and earns a place at the brutal training school for the Nazi: the Hitler Youth.
Amidst the intricacies of Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives, lay the most-sought after blue diamond called the Sea of Flames, which unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, is kept by her father. He is on the mission to keep the gem and its two other copies out of the German’s hands. Having been arrested by the Germans shortly thereafter, Daniel left Marie-Laure with his recluse uncle Etienne and his housekeeper. Soon after that, a Nazi treasure hunter sets out to find the Sea of Flames.
Years after, his path converged with Marie-Laure when the Allied forces have docked on the beaches of Normandy. Werner, together with his unit, went to Saint-Malo to trace and destroy the sender of the cryptic intelligence broadcast.
In All the Light We Cannot See, our two main characters are forced to make hopelessly difficult choices: Werner, whose fight is for the Nazis and Marie-Laure, whose side is with the French Resistance in WWII. It’s also worthy of noting that there is neat symmetry of Marie-Laure and Werner’s pasts- one spent in a life of darkness, the other of probing sounds. As their paths inch close, it is becoming obvious that their meeting is a predestined one. Although both have their own challenges to beat, each has demonstrated courage and the will to create their destinies.
The novel also explores different themes and gives us a unique perspective of war; a tale in which the atrocities and destruction of war served as a backdrop for the real story to unfold, muting the devastation and explosions of bombs by the murmur of love, family, and friendship. They are more than the allusion of the tragedy Romeo and Juliet had. Their lives dig deeper than a mere attraction, giving us points such as pride, duty, sacrifice, and resiliency that brought their worlds together.
The 530-page book is a long read, but won’t feel like it because each chapter is stylishly-written in just a few pages long. This goes to say that readers won’t have a hard time savoring every word of it. It seems that each page has an advertence to light and its beauty into each of our lives.
However, the book’s strength might also be its Achilles heel as Doerr’s prose can come off as heavily-operatic and relentless. Readers, without much appreciation or patience to laboriously-elaborated writing style, might find the first hundred pages very tedious to read. There aren’t much nouns included without adjectives or adverbs to spruce them up. Nouns always come off glimmering with two or three embellishments; thus making the book far too long and taxing.
Nevertheless, Doerr did what he had to do- that is, accompanying us through the darkness by weaving vivid colors and rich details of a world that we are not able to see. All the Light We Cannot see shows us the light with our eyes closed and lets its grace shine upon us.
“That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”
Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014, Scribner
Genre: Historical Fiction