All the Light We Cannot See (2014) opens in the basement of a hotel in the port city of Saint-Malo in occupied France, 1944. The city is being bombed. Eighteen-year-old Nazi soldier Werner Pfennig is trapped below tonnes of rubble, his chances of survival increasingly slim, whilst across town, a blind French girl Marie-Laure is hiding in her attic. The pair is bound by a curiosity in natural science, years of surreptitious radio broadcasts, and a diamond that may bestow immortality upon its holder. Neither of them knows it yet. What follows is the tale of a boy who joins the Nazi regime and a girl who tries to evade it, and the series of events that will set their paths hurtling towards one another.
After these opening scenes, the story rewinds to 1934: Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mining town of Zollverein. He has white hair (no doubt Führer-approved) and an intense curiosity for the way the world works. When he and his sister Jutta find a broken old radio, Werner takes it apart and painstakingly puts it back together until it works again. This extraordinary skill will see him enlisted in a Nazi school that grooms and trains young cadets for the Third Reich.
Meanwhile, six-year-old Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris under the care of her father, a locksmith and key-maker at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle. It is here that he is charged with protecting the Sea of Flame ― a legendary diamond said to bestow immortality upon its bearer, at the price of destroying everything they hold dear. When Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris from the Nazis a few years later, she finds herself hounded by the question: is the diamond real, and are the legends that it gives its bearer immortality true?
Whilst this is ostensibly a historical novel, the fable of the diamond adds a fairy tale-like quality to the story, one that is all the more effective in juxtaposition with the often harrowing tales of Nazi violence and brutality. Anthony Doerr finds magic in the natural world also: in the molluscs, minerals and shells Marie-Laure collects, and the technological mastery Werner has over radios. In a way, these become the most fantastical elements of the story, as Doerr proclaims the wonder of science.
Some critics have criticised the book’s flowery language ― Doerr’s excessive use of adjectives, and so on ― but somehow this adds to the magical quality of the story. Far from being awkward, his prose is quite exquisite. It is rare to find a book that is as lyrical and poetic as it is compelling; it is literary fiction with the pacing of a thriller.
Speaking of pacing, it is perhaps the chapter lengths that allow Doerr his break-neck plot. They are usually no more than one or two pages long, switching constantly between Marie-Laure and Werner. We watch as Marie-Laure tries to overcome the barriers of her blindness and Werner battles with his moral compass as he is sucked deeper and deeper into the Nazi regime. The reader sees more and more clearly how inevitable the crossing of their paths will be, and much of the tension lies in the characters’ ignorance of each other.
It is not so much the fairy tale-like fable of the diamond that brings magic to this story, but Doerr’s ability to find wonder in the natural world, even as it is being destroyed at the hands of the Nazis. Rarely do characters’ plights come this compelling and rarely is prose this good. And as if these praises weren’t enough, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction ― though it shouldn’t take readers any more encouragement to go and read this novel. Now.
This WWII-era novel tells the interlocked stories of two radically different main characters. The first: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young French girl whose loving father goes to extreme lengths to help her compensate for her blindness, even building detailed models of the cities they live in so she can learn her way about. The second, Werner Pfennig, an orphan destined to work in the coal mines where his father died, who is unexpectedly plucked from poverty because of his mechanical genius and sent to a select school for Hitler youth. The chapters alternate between these two characters, following them as they grow up in the 1930s and 40s in France and Germany.
Marie-Laure and Werner don’t know each other, but they are connected by scientific radio broadcasts made by Marie-Laure’s grandfather, and in other ways that become apparent as the story goes along. They will both wind up in the French town of Saint-Malo, bombed by the Allies in August 1944: Werner trying to find the source of radio broadcasts made by the underground resistance, and Marie-Laure as part of that resistance. Anthony Doerr makes the interesting choice of interspersing scenes from Saint-Malo in 1944 throughout the book, so in a sense we’re seeing the end from the beginning, at least in part.
All the Light We Cannot See contains lovely, lyrical writing and intriguing symbolism and connections. The symbolism is pervasive, including literal and spiritual blindness, radio broadcasts that connect people in the darkness, and Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s last names (“White” and “Penny”). But Doerr doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and I enjoyed trying to suss out all the hidden meanings.
My main issue is that I tend to be the type of reader who likes things explained and wrapped up with a nice neat bow at the end, and the ending of this book felt ― and still feels ― inconclusive. With all of the connections and ties that permeate All the Light We Cannot See, it felt like a lovely sweater that unexpectedly was snagged by a mischievous cat and got half-unravelled in the end.
I had to sit on it for about a week, and then go back and read the last 50 pages again, before I felt like I understood, at least in part, why Doerr wrote the ending of his novel the way he did. Life isn’t nice and neat, but it goes on, and people continue to touch each other long after the main part of the story has ended. Even after death, there are connections. I’m still not entirely satisfied with the ending, but overall it was a memorable novel and well worth reading.