Walled cities were once the safest of places, but World War II brought fire from the skies and turned everything on its head. Saint-Malo is an ancient city so independent that it once separated from the rest of France for three years; no surprise then that in All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr we watch a quiet resistance evolve through the senses of a blind girl with a hidden treasure.
It is not easy to tell you what Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is about. The scope is as narrow as the hopes of a young French girl and a trapped German boy, and it is as wide as the universe. As the war takes both of their lives and warps them beyond recognition, each moment is lovingly held and released in Doerr’s sharp, short chapters, as poignant and brief as the forbidden radio broadcasts that bring purpose to them both.
When Marie-Laure goes blind at a young age her father builds a faithful replica of their Paris neighbourhood to help her learn its routes. War forces them out of the captured city and they make their way to Saint-Malo with a treasure hidden that may or may not be one of the most sought-after and dangerous diamonds in the country. Marie-Laure finds herself shut up inside a tall, mysterious home with her agoraphobic uncle and his rebellious housekeeper, but through the risks and the heartbreak, Marie-Laure never loses her sense of wonder for the world she cannot see.
In Germany, a boy named Werner escapes the promise of an early death in the mines of his hometown by joining the Hitler Youth. Uneasy with his choice, Werner nonetheless stays true to his path and uses his gift for radio technology to find and destroy resistance. His mission cuts him down to the bone as it leads him to Saint-Malo, where the two stories converge into one brief but poignant meeting between the two young people.
Before you pick up this book, you need to look at photographs of Saint-Malo. That walled town is a character of its own with his reliable storm drains, its rolling waves, its hidden hideaway. It is easy to understand why Doerr would pick such a unique spot for the story of Europe’s darkest hour. Tragedy and beauty complement one another so well.
There is tragedy enough in All the Light We Cannot See. It will leave a bitter taste on your tongue as you see how even those of us trying to do good in the world will work in our own self-interest and, in the end, may do more evil than anything else. This book shakes with the uncertainty of the characters as they grapple with whether their actions will do harm or good, and whether any of it matters anyway as they’re swept up in the tides of something so much larger than them.
The constant moral back-and-forth is exhausting, but it gives a heaviness to a book that might otherwise be nothing but well-written fluff. The metaphors are delicious, the settings are rich, the characters are three-dimensional. All of that is possible thanks to Doerr’s ability to cut past the common tendency to view the Second World War through our retrospective gaze. The morality is clear now as we continue to count the dead but in those difficult days, those caught in the middle of the fight could not have known the full extent of their actions. Few of us believe that our intentions matter in the long-term beyond our short lifespans, even when war forces us to face our demons.
Both Werner and Marie-Laure face their demons in their own way. Marie-Laure sums up the book’s true meaning, the whisper laced through every action and reaction through it, in one quick utterance.
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
Perhaps some of her actions could seem heroic in retrospect. Some of Werner’s desperate attempts to get a grip on his own identity could even be placed in that category. However, neither of them are trying to be anything but themselves, right at a time in life when we all struggle with that question.
Some parts of the prose made me want to never stop reading, but I cannot deny that the book drags in places. The jump between time frames is confusing and those moments where I re-read the same passage two or three times to align myself in the story made it seem longer than it was. Though I often like that narrative construct, there were times when it seemed jagged here; the story did not always line up nicely as the scenes switched and changed.
All The Light We Cannot See is a rare treasure and one that will stay with you for a long time after you put it down. Add it to your to-read list if you haven’t already, though be ready to put a lot of time and effort into the story. It is worth it.