Since I enjoy reading historical fiction, especially stories set during WWII, I was told ‘All the Light We Cannot see’ was a must read. I can now see why. This has to be one of the most elegant historical fiction books I’ve ever read. I’ll confess, I’m at a loss of words to describe this book right now. How do you review something as beautiful as this?
“What mazes there are in this world.The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models… None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes”.
It is as if Anthony Doerr has handpicked the most exquisite words in the English language and mixed them in just the right amount to make this delightful prose. We first meet Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, the protagonists. Marie-Laure who has gone blind at the age of six, lives in Paris with her father. Werner is an orphan who lives in the mining town of Zollverein, Germany. The book follows their lives in parallel. You won’t see the connection initially, but as with every plot, fictional and in real life, there is a grand plan.
The book starts in 1944 with Allied bombers taking over the city of Saint Malo on the coast of Brittany. We know that Marie-Laure is there, in a house, alone and frightened. Werner is somewhere around there too. We’re then taken back to 1934, alternating between Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives, building up to the 1944 day.
Marie-Laure’s father is a skilled locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, who in his free time constructs accurate, miniature models of Paris streets for his blind daughter to feel and learn her way around. He trains her to be self-reliant, to overcome her disability. The father-daughter relationship is written in a way which will make you want to stand up and cheer.
But when France falls to the Germans, they have to flee Paris to live with her eccentric uncle, Etienne in the quaint town of Saint Malo. Marie-Laure’s father wastes no time in building a miniature Saint-Malo for his daughter.
Werner is a tinkerer. Understanding how radio waves and transmissions work comes naturally to him. His skill for repairing radios gets him into a Nazi youth camp and he is trained for the Wehrmacht at the age of 14. Layers are peeled and Werner finally understands what he is being trained for.
Werner’s internal conflict is fueled by his sister Jutta, who is the voice of his conscience and Frederick, his bunkmate at the youth camp, who stands for what is right despite the fear of punishment.
Doerr then throws in our villain, Von Rumpel, a Nazi who is looking for a rare diamond called the Sea of Flames, rumored to be in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. But is it really there? Or somewhere else? I loved the fable-like aura Doerr builds around the diamond. Von Rumpel’s character is a short one, but his menacing presence is felt in every page he’s on! Marie-Laure can smell “rot” in his hands.
Every character, be it the protagonists or the supporting ones like Frederick, Marie-Laure’s father, Etienne or the brave Madame Manec are etched with finesse. Frederick’s and Madame Manec’s stories were so touching, I felt same sadness I felt at Dumbledore’s death.
But this book took me a little getting used to. Like an engine sputtering to life, the characters and events started making sense after the first few chapters. The imagery is so rich, you have to adjust your eyes to the brightness before you can see it.
“How about peaches dear?’ Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.”
Apart from the rich, almost poetic prose, I really admire the enormous amount of research that has gone into writing this. I’m not surprised that this book has been in the making for 10 years! It’s as if the author knows everything about everything, from radios and transmitters to mollusks to trigonometry and ammunition. But at no point does all this technicality get boring.
My only criticism about this book is how the ending was handled. It seemed a little rushed compared to the pace of the rest of the story. The author builds your expectation so much that you wait for the moment when Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s paths will cross. And when they finally do, it falls a little flat after all that brilliance.
The time leaps in the end were a little disconcerting, although it is inevitable in a story like this. Having said that, I’m also glad Doerr gave me closure with that ending, If he hadn’t, I would have had sleepless nights wondering what finally happens to Werner and Marie-Laure.
This is a war story, yet it is not. This is a story that has to be savored, like a cup of fine coffee because every word is a treat. I highly recommend it. To everyone, even to strangers on the street. Can you tell I really liked this book?