Last updated on January 30th, 2019Combine elegant prose, a riveting tale that alternates between story time, and storyline, a provocative topic, war — unfortunately, always a provocative topic — and the predilection of the human spirit to survive even after losing all that is good in life, and you’ll have All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, a book so exquisite that you may just weep with the joy of its telling. At the very least you’ll get a few shivers. Let me start by saying that I had no intention of reading this book, mostly because I’m exhausted by the concept of war; we all are, but my friend, Lena, whose judgment I trust implicitly insisted, so I acquiesced. Oh my, people. Why did I wait so long?
The story begins at the end in 1944 in Saint-Malo, a city on the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France where 16-year old Marie-Laure LeBlanc waits, locked in the attic with little hope for the return of her uncle Etienne who was recently taken away by Germans occupying the city. Marie-Laure, the daughter of Monsieur LeBlanc, the principal locksmith for the Museum of Natural History and a master model maker, has fled Paris with her father to Saint-Malo by the sea to be with Etienne, Monsieur LeBlanc’s brother who resides still in their boyhood home, refusing to leave the house since his service in the first World War. Saint-Malo was supposed to be a safe haven for the pair, but during wartime, no place is safe.
The story then ruthlessly skips back to the beginning where a six-year old Marie-Laure loses her sight and is plunged into darkness by a congenital cataract condition that would likely be fixable today. Monsieur LeBlanc, meticulously and with the utmost patience as was his temperament, teaches Marie-Laure how to navigate the world using a cane and trial and error. In addition, he builds her a miniature model of the city of Paris so she may study it with her hands. Each day they walk to the museum and Marie-Laure counts curbs and storm drains, trying to make mental notes of her surroundings while her frustration builds and builds, until one fine day, she succeeds in navigating the way home by herself.
Things travel more or less smoothly along this path, that is, until Hitler starts mucking around and Paris is overrun by Germans. The curator at the Museum of Natural History has a very special job for Monsieur LeBlanc: transport the Sea of Flames, or perhaps one of its’ replicas, created to throw the Germans off the trail, out of the city. The Sea of Flames, one of the Museum’s greatest treasures, is a rare and invaluable diamond, believed to have been cursed by a goddess who had sent it to her paramour as a token of her affection. The legend goes that the diamond was intercepted by a human before it reached the goddesses’ intended love interest, causing the goddess to curse the finder to immortality and all those who were associated with the finder to mishap. Monsieur LeBlanc agrees to transport it out of Paris — or perhaps its replica — and he and Marie-Laure set off for Saint-Malo.
Meanwhile, Werner and Jutta are struggling to survive in Zollverein, a coal-mining district outside of Essen, Germany. They live in a small orphanage created as a refuge for those children whose fathers died working in the mines. It’s no secret that when Werner turns 15 he will be sent to the mines to work, the same mines that buried his father below ground and left Werner and Jutta above as orphans to scavenge whatever kind of childhood they could. Yet Werner’s inquisitive mind doesn’t leave much time for brooding about potential future disasters. Werner teaches himself math with the few books he’s able to find, and he and Jutta listen to radio broadcasts from Paris on a radio he’s rebuilt from parts ferreted out from the local dump. The broadcasts discuss science and the earth’s natural wonders, and Werner and Jutta spirits soar with this small, but uplifting distraction. When the Third Reich discovers Werner’s talent they draft him into an elite training school for German youth, many steps up from where he’s come from because of the newfound luxury of learning. Unfortunately, it comes with a price and the joy of math and science isn’t enough to sustain him.
So sets the scene for a ping-pong of a ride through a ten-year period in history as seen through the impressions and experiences of our two young protagonists. It is another story about war, yes, but the language is so sublime, the story so delicately told, the characters so inexorably profound that reading it, you almost forget the gruesomeness and are left with the only thing that ever really remains: the light.
The above review was originally posted by P.J. Lazos on her blog at Green Life Blue Water.