Author: Anthony Doerr
Review by: William De Baets, Consul General of Belgium to the Southeast U.S.
My wife gave me Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See for my birthday last June. She knows I like stories about life during World War II, and I must say that her choice was spot-on.
This historical novel tells the story of a French girl and a German boy during the war, who have very different stories with some commonalities that will converge by the end of the book. The author jumps back and forth in time, subtly weaving ties between them that will only become clear as the story unfolds.
Marie-Laure is a blind teenager who lives with her father in Paris. When the Nazis occupy France’s capital, they flee to Saint-Malo, where she will stay with her great-uncle during the entire occupation. Her loving father does all he can to give his daughter as normal a life as possible. He gives her books in Braille writing — she really loves to read — and also makes models of the cities where they live so she can memorize them at model scale, then use her memory to move around in the world.
The young German is Werner. He and his sister are orphans initially living in the same orphanage. There he develops an interest in radios that will determine his future. The siblings are separated when Werner is drafted into a military academy for Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). From there he goes to the German Army and in August 1944 is sent to Saint-Malo.
There are other characters and storylines of various levels of importance in the book, among others Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel, locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, who is entrusted with protecting the cursed Sea of Flames diamond and secretly passes it on to his daughter; Von Rumpel, the German gemologist and sergeant major in search of the Sea of Flames which he hopes will safe him from his terminal illness; Werner’s friend Frank, “the Giant,” who will be trapped with him at the hotel in Saint-Malo; Madame Manec, active member of the French Resistance; even Marie-Laure’s grandfather, introduced posthumously, who once hosted science programs on the radio that young Werner listened to during his childhood in Germany.
The beautiful walled city of Saint-Malo is the setting for this dramatic novel. Occupied by the Germans, the city came under siege by the Allies and was heavily destroyed in the raids following the landing in Normandy. The choice of Saint-Malo is excellent as it reflects the balanced approach by Doerr, who tells the stories of the people embroiled in war without leading us to divide the world into the good and bad guys.
On the contrary, he writes about what binds people, the common humanity in the tragedy of the war. It is one of the aspects I most liked in this book and where I see one of the many possible references of the book’s title.