I’ve read World War II fiction, but never a story like “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. The book follows two teenagers from their childhoods in the thirties, through 1945 and beyond. The first is Marie Laurie LeBlanc. She’s blind and lives with her locksmith father in Paris. The second, Werner Pfennig, grows up in a German orphanage. Their stories begin to intertwine in the book’s opening scene. In a coastal French town towards the end of World War II, Marie Laurie crouches in her great-uncle’s secret attic during an American attack. Werner is only a half-mile away in a dark, bombed out basement. Will they meet? is the constant question as the author combs back and forth through their two lives.
Before World War II, eight-year old Werner finds a spool of wire with an earphone in a junk pile, and starts tinkering with radios. His skills are later prized by the Nazis. Werner is offered an orphan’s dream to attend a National School. There, a professor drills him on mathematics until he can triangulate the location of Allied radios. But after Werner’s unit’s soldiers shoot the Russian radio operators, he silently withdraws from the casual brutality, and the war.
Unlike Werner, Marie Laurie’s family surrounds her. Since she is blind, her father builds a model of Paris neighborhoods so she can find her way to the museum where he works. She does this by counting storm drains. Her father also builds intricate puzzle boxes for her birthdays, and others to protect the museum’s prize diamond, which is named “The Sea of Flames.” At the start of the book, Marie Laurie and her father are forced to flee German-occupied Paris and travel to the coastal village where his Uncle Etienne lives. There her father feverishly works to build a model of the new village, supposedly to help Marie Laurie get around. Uncle Etienne, an agoraphobic, insists she not venture outside. But his housekeeper, Madame Manec, finally leads Marie Laurie out, to the sea. She wades in, mesmerized. From then on, Marie Laurie and Madame Manec ferry messages for the French Resistance. For me, there were so many tantalizing characters in Mr. Doerr’s book.
But what is all that “Light We Cannot See”? Is it Marie Laurie’s love of the ocean that she cannot see? Is it Werner’s sister Jutta’s intuition the Nazis are not all they seem? Or is it the sparkle and mystery of the “Sea of Flames” diamond? There are many possibilities in Mr. Doerr’s book.
I pulled this book out one Saturday, and read the first 150 pages in one sitting. I vacillated between racing through the short chapters, desperate to find out what happens, and leisurely re-reading choice sentences and paragraphs. But by the time I finished, Doerr delivered what I always want with a great book, to find out what happens to all the characters after “The End.”
"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr is published by Scribner Publishing.
Reviewer Kathleen O’Connell is a sixth grade teacher at Park Forest Middle School in State College.