Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is aptly named. His World War II novel of a German boy and a French girl shines brilliantly throughout, but I closed the book feeling like I’d missed the most revealing illumination.
Two quotes preface the story. The first, attributed to Philip Beck, informs us that in August of 1944, the Nazi-occupied French city of Saint-Malo was all but destroyed by Allied forces. The second quote, attributed to Joseph Goebbels, emphasizes the importance of radio to the Nazi’s earlier successes. Both selections forecast the course of the book.
The significance of Beck’s quotation becomes apparent immediately—Doerr’s prologue opens in Saint-Malo as the bombs begin to drop. We catch glimpses of the French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who’s blind, and the German boy, Werner Pfennig, a private in the occupying Nazi forces. Each protagonist is in mortal peril.
Then Doerr jumps back to 1934, when Marie-Laure lived in Paris with her father and still had her sight (although it’s failing), and Werner persevered in an orphanage with his sister in the coal-mining town of Zollverein. The next several chapters sketch out key moments in the main characters’ lives over the following six years. After Marie-Laure finally loses her vision, her father, a locksmith at Paris’s Museum of Natural History, builds a model of their neighborhood to help her learn to navigate by memory and feel. Werner finds an old radio and teaches himself how it works. Marie-Laure learns that the museum houses a legendary diamond called the Sea of Flames, a jewel that grants its owner immortality but dooms their family to tragedy. Werner gains a reputation for being able to fix radios, and catches the eye of a Nazi notable, who promises to recommend him for enrollment at the National Political Institute of Education, an elite military training school. The Germans advance into France. The French surrender. Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris.
But before continuing this part of the narrative, Doerr cuts back to 1944 and the bombing of Saint-Malo for a few moments. The pattern repeats itself several times: we get an extended session in the past, gaining further insight into the expansion of Marie-Laure’s world and the numbing of Werner’s soul, and then return to the present for a brief furtherance of the initial scene.
I’m not sure this back and forth was necessary. The prologue implies the protagonists will meet up eventually, and makes us wonder why certain supporting characters are present while others aren’t; that’s plenty of light to steer by. Yo-yoing the chronology to revisit 1944 several more times didn’t add much for me—it just made the bombing feel drawn out. I also could have done without the secondary plotline involving Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel and his pursuit of the Sea of Flames, entrusted to Marie-Laure’s father before Paris fell. And the ending isn’t a climax so much as it is an extended epilogue.
These complaints seem paltry when set against Doerr’s beautiful prose, however, and his masterful, poignant characterizations; I cared just as much about Werner as I did Marie-Laure and her father. Now that I’ve let the book sit a few days, my only real complaint is that Doerr’s ultimate message still seems a bit muddled. Was the Sea of Flame’s metaphorical significance as obvious as it seems? (That few can resist the opportunity to seize power, even when they know it comes with terrible consequences?) Or was Doerr aiming at something subtler?
Either way, All the Light We Cannot See will stay with me. Despite the missteps, the story is absolutely worthy of the Pulitzer it won in 2015—and, perhaps in a year or two, a second read to look for those hidden rays of insight.
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