My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Books about World War II or set in that period do not usually land on my "to be read" list, but this book was highly recommended to me by someone who knows my reading habits and tastes and has a good idea of what I will enjoy. And that's how I ended up reading a book set mostly during World War II. Thank goodness I did.
All the Light We Cannot See is a lyrically written, hauntingly beautiful book about two young people, a German boy and a French girl, trapped in the maelstrom of war. The climactic action of the book takes place in August 1944, two months after D-Day, but Anthony Doerr gives us his main characters' background in flashbacks. Throughout much of the book, the brief but information-packed chapters alternate between telling the stories of the German boy, Werner, and the French girl, Marie-Laure. By the time we reach August 1944, we have observed the intricate web that, for one day, finally draws these two together. Boy meets girl, but that meeting comes about by an incredibly circuitous route.
Marie-Laure is a privileged child in many ways. She is born in the years before the war and lives in Paris with her father. (Her mother is dead.) They live near the Museum of Natural History where the father works. He is a gifted locksmith and he is the master of the thousands of locks which are a part of the museum. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind because of cataracts. To help her "see" her neighborhood and learn to navigate it, her father, who is a talented builder of models, makes a perfect miniature of the community where they live for her so that she can learn the streets by touch and memorization.
Marie-Laure lives a charmed life in which her days are spent at the museum with her father. She is a favorite of his co-workers there and they serve as her teachers. But when she is twelve years old, war comes to Paris. The Nazis occupy the city and Marie-Laure and her father are forced to flee. The father is entrusted with a treasure from the museum - a famous diamond. Or maybe not. It may be one of the duplicates that was made to fool the Nazis. He can't be sure.
The two refugees travel to the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo, where the father's uncle lives. They live in the house with the old man, Etienne, and his housekeeper, and the father begins building a miniature city of Saint-Malo for his daughter.
Werner's life could hardly have been more different. He grew up in a mining town in Germany, along with his younger sister, Jutta. They were orphaned at an early age and they live in an orphanage. Werner's life is all planned out for him by the state. When he is fifteen, he is expected to go to work in the mines. The mines which killed his father. He faces that prospect with horror.
But Werner is a prodigy. He has a genius for understanding electrical circuits and for building and repairing radios. News of his talent gets around and inevitably comes to the attention of the Nazis who run things. In 1939, a German officer shows up at the orphanage and requires Werner to accompany him to the house of a rich couple who own an expensive Philco radio. The radio has stopped working and Werner is asked to fix it. He does and is rewarded with all the cake he can eat.
That test of his abilities brought him an opportunity to try for an elite Nazi school which provides extreme military training. He aces the entrance exams. The authorities also measure his head with calipers and rate the color of his hair (which is white-blonde) and his eyes for their shade of blue.
The brutality of the school experience threatens to completely extinguish any humane instincts that have survived in Werner. It is a society where kill-or-be-killed is the rule of the day. Only one cadet has the moral courage to say "no" to this philosophy - Werner's friend Frederick. Frederick is brutalized for that courage and Werner does nothing to stop it.
Werner lives in a world where propaganda is force-fed as a daily diet, but he struggles to keep his memories of growing up with his sister and listening to the radio late at night with her. He remembers listening to a professor speaking on the radio about the brain's power to create light in darkness. He cherishes the memory of listening to that professor talk, the professor who it turns out was Marie-Laure's grandfather, just one of the many intersections on the circuitous route of the two characters' lives. In his darkest moments, he clings to a still small voice that tells him, "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
As Saint-Malo finally is occupied by the Nazis and then bombarded by Allied bombers in August 1944, both Marie-Laure and Werner are in the city. How they finally come to meet and what proceeds from that meeting is the emotional peak of the novel, but there are years yet to transpire in the telling of this story. The ending was a bit anticlimactic, but it was Anthony Doerr's choice to write it in this manner. I can't criticize that choice.
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Note: I'm linking this post to Carole Durbin's monthly "Books You Loved" meme, because this is truly a book that I loved!