Storylines dismissed as shopworn have a funny way of becoming fresh and thrilling in the hands of a literary master. And what historical event has been used as the backdrop for more works of literature in the past 70 years than World War II? The possibility that citizens of Allied nations could have fallen in love with, or seen the innate goodness in, subjects of the Third Reich is not new. Books such as SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER have chronicled the experiences of children whose innocence allowed them to see qualities that others could not. You’d think that, by now, every story imaginable about the rise of National Socialism had been told already.
Which is what makes ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, Anthony Doerr’s new novel, such a revelation. Doerr is known mainly for his short stories, most notably 2010’s MEMORY WALL. In his latest book, he shows greater comfort with the demands of novel writing than he has heretofore demonstrated. And he has found an original way of telling a story we’ve heard countless times before.
"[T]he greatest achievement of this book is that, unlike many similar works, Doerr emphasizes his protagonists’ capacity for kindness. Of all the brightnesses we can’t or don’t allow ourselves to see, the capacity for goodness in the face of evil is the brightest of all."
The novel, most of which takes place between 1934 and 1944, is the story of two children, one French and one German. The first, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, lives in Paris with her father, the master locksmith of the city’s Muséum National d’Historie Naturelle. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes on a tour with other children and, at the end, asks the guide about the one part of the museum he didn’t show them: the contents behind a locked iron door. He tells them the legend of the jewel kept within, a 133-carat stone known as the Sea of Flames. The stone has a curse: The owner lives forever, but bad luck befalls everyone else. One month later, an illness robs Marie-Laure of her sight.
Her father cares for her and builds a wooden model of their neighborhood so that she can study it and learn to navigate the streets on her own. He buys books written in Braille, one of which, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, becomes one of her favorites. In 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris for the walled city of Saint-Malo to live with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit who is emotionally scarred from World War I. Marie-Laure is unaware that her father has brought with them a stone that may or may not be the Sea of Flames. Three fakes have been made, and no one knows which is which.
In Germany, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a mining-town orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta. As Werner grows up, he shows an aptitude for building and repairing radios. Among the broadcasts he and Jutta enjoy listening to on a set he repairs are lectures by a French science professor.
One day, teenage Werner is summoned to the quarters of Herr Siedler, a German officer, to fix the officer’s radio. Siedler is grateful to the boy and arranges for him to attend the prestigious National Political Institutes of Education in Essen --- a training ground for Hitler Youth. Werner’s science skills so impress his teachers that he is recruited to help the Wehrmacht track down sites of illegal transmissions. At first, he is enthusiastic about the assignment, but the sight of a murdered child at a location he helps uncover reveals to him the horror of the German campaign. His belief in the Nazi cause is all but gone when, two months after the Normandy invasion, his unit is told to locate and destroy the source of transmissions coming from Saint-Malo, the “final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.”
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE consists of short chapters, most of them fewer than five pages, the collective impact of which is devastating as Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories converge. The book’s title gives you a sense of Doerr’s style: formal and elegant, direct yet poetic. He writes gorgeous sentences: “A foot of steel looks as if it has been transformed into warm butter and gouged by the fingers of a child,” “From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.” But the greatest achievement of this book is that, unlike many similar works, Doerr emphasizes his protagonists’ capacity for kindness. Of all the brightnesses we can’t or don’t allow ourselves to see, the capacity for goodness in the face of evil is the brightest of all.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on May 9, 2014