All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

by Robert A. Parker

This 2014 work is a serious and ambitious novel. Its theme is the casualness and cruelty of war. And especially its impact on children, the innocent. It is a story of World War II, and deliberately focuses on one French child and one German child. Both are good children as well as innocent, and the point is that they suffer equally. For war is the villain, not the Germans, much less the French.

In alternating chapters, we witness the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is sixteen and blind, when the novel reaches its climax in August, 1944, at the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo. Werner is two years older, skilled at radio communication, and stationed in occupied Saint-Malo. Their meeting will occur only at the end of this novel.

These two children are helpless in the tide of history. But the novel begins ten years earlier, when Marie-Laure has just turned blind from cataracts, and Werner, having lost his father in a mine accident, is moved to a primitive orphan’s home with his sister Jutta. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the lockmaster of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. To enable his daughter to move around their neighborhood, he has built a miniature model of its streets, parks, and buildings. He also holds the key to the vault of a precious diamond, called the Sea of Flames, which is a significant plot element in the novel. Werner, meanwhile, is a sensitive child fascinated by radios, and he struggles against the brutality of his teachers and classmates.

Both are caught up by the war. Marie-Laure flees with her father as the Germans advance on Paris, and ends up in Saint-Malo, where her father builds her another model so she can move around that city. He also carries with him one of four versions of the Sea of Flames that the French have created to hide the real one from the Germans. Werner, meanwhile, has been recognized for his expertise with radios and has been drafted first into a technical school and then into the army. In the army, his radio unit serves in Poland, Russia, Austria, and finally, as Allied forces cross the channel, France. There this sensitive boy endures the horrors of war, but finds an understanding colleague in Sergeant Frank Volkheimer.

The reader knows these two children will come together, but both stories are so well and so sensitively told that he is rarely impatient. Doerr does create suspense, however, by opening his novel in August, 1944, with both Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in rubble after an Allied bombing. He then returns periodically to their dire situation, making the reader eager to learn not so much how they will meet as how they will survive. Not to mention how the fate of the diamond will affect them—if it is the real one.

That diamond is another unifying element. Legend has it that its possessor will live forever, but all those around him will die, and this does seem to account for the fate of many characters when one reviews the novel’s events. Indeed, the fate of the diamond itself, which ends up hidden inside one of the model houses, actually requires careful reading. Suspense also enters when Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been assigned to find the true diamond on behalf of Adolf Hitler. The sergeant is dying of a tumor; and finding the diamond will, he believes, enable him to survive. Suspense grows as each diamond he tracks down is a false one, and as he gets closer to finding the model house. But his own story is peripheral to the novel’s main story.

Times’ reviewer Vollman objects to the presence of this diamond, but I believe it is also a metaphor for the novel—for both the survival of some characters and the casual death of others. That is, it is a symbol of the permanence of life but the arbitrariness of death. At the very end, in 2014, the elderly Marie-Laure compares the electro-magnetic waves Werner loves to the souls of the dead of this novel. “[Might they not] fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?…the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” This is also the world, the light, of the title that we cannot see.

The major achievement of this novel is its portrayal of the blind Marie-Laure. We experience her life as she does, through her remaining four senses, especially that of hearing. But she is also a sensitive, intelligent, and brave girl, and there is a fascinating parallel between her own trapped situation and the trapped characters in her favorite novel, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. At the end, for example, she is reading it over the radio when she thinks she may well die—and it becomes her first contact with Werner, when he hears her voice over his own radio.

Werner himself, with his own sensitivity amid the cruelty around him, with his special skill with radios, and with his love for his sister Jutta, is a full creation, but not at the level of Marie-Laure. After operating almost an automaton in the army, as he traces illegal radio transmissions and sees those operating them killed, he is traumatized by the death of an innocent Austrian girl and her mother. Feeling guilty, he opens his heart when confronted by the innocence of another girl, Marie-Laure. This about-face is a major character transformation, but it works.

Doerr breaks two rules of novel-writing here, and both also work. First, he writes in the present tense. Proof perhaps that it works is that I was unaware of it. Usually, it is used to convey immediacy, but perhaps it is also used here because Marie-Laure is blind and lives in the present tense, in the world of her remaining senses. Second, the novel is written in the form of very short chapters, often two or three pages. But this blends in with the sense of immediacy, for once a scene ends the author is finished with it, and moves on to a new scene, a new development.

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more of Doerr’s work. But one suspects such work will be quite different. He supposedly put ten years into this work, and certainly it reveals considerable research to recreate the era of World War II, one retreat across France and another across Eastern Europe, and finally the description and the destruction of Saint-Malo. Indeed, the creation of the model neighborhoods within both Paris and Saint-Malo become another metaphor for this entire novel. (September, 2016)