Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See* follows two young people, Marie-Laure and Werner, as Europe teeters on the brink of World War II and then falls into the abyss. All the Light We Cannot See is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read all year; Mr. Doerr’s prose is elegant, luminous, and unflinching. Secondary characters are finely rendered and remembered throughout the novel (one of my favorites is a classmate of Werner’s who reminded me of Helen Burns from Jane Eyre); no-one is lost. Every page offers beautiful sentences and lovingly rendered textures of places and things.
Here’s just one passage that I marked for its perfect description:
Hours later, he wakes to see the silhouette of an airplane blot stars as it lurches east. It makes a soft tearing sound as it passes overhead. Then it disappears. The ground concusses a moment later.
A corner of the night sky, beyond a wall of trees, blooms red. In the lurid, flickering light, he sees that the airplane was not alone, that the sky teems with them, a dozen swooping back and forth, racing in all directions, and in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark. (90-91)
Marie-Laure goes blind as a young girl. Her father, who works with locks at Paris’s Museum of Natural History and fashions puzzle boxes for each of Marie-Laure’s birthday, constructs a tiny scale model of their neighborhood so that she can learn to navigate on her own. When the Nazis invade, however, they’re forced to flee Paris for the home of Marie-Laure’s eccentric and reclusive uncle, haunted by what he witnessed during the First World War. In new surroundings and faced with constant fear, Marie-Laure learns to make do — with the Resistance rising around her.
In Germany, Werner lives in an orphanage with his younger sister, dreading the day when he’ll be old enough to work in the mines that killed his father. By chance, he and Jutta find a broken radio, and Werner fixes it as if by magic. At night they listen surreptitiously, enraptured by what they hear, especially a children’s program in French. Before long, Werner’s radio repair skills are famous in their town, and he wins entry to a school for Hitler Youth — his escape from the mines. But he’s unprepared for the cruelty he finds there, and for what he finds himself doing in the army.
Eventually, but inexorably, Werner and Marie-Laure enter each other’s orbits. Part of All the Light We Cannot See‘s brilliance is its structure, which allows for maximum description (the book was ten years in the making, apparently) and maximum suspense. Scenes from Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s days in the same town — incredibly suspenseful — are suspended between the chapters devoted to exploring their individual adolescences. All the Light We Cannot See is quite long — more than five hundred pages — but it moves with the pace of a much shorter book.
Both Werner and Marie-Laure attempt to bring small works of order to a world that’s gone mad, Werner working his equations and Marie-Laure counting her steps. Both love to lose themselves in other worlds — in Werner’s case, it’s the world of radio, of those untethered voices shimmering in the air, while Marie-Laure adores Jules Verne, racing her fingers across braille editions of his novels. That the pair prefer imagined worlds is unsurprising given the terrors of their own; it’s their tenacity, their determination to survive, that’s so heartbreaking and wondrous.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.