Pick of the Week: All the Light We Cannot See
The book’s short chapters alternate between the two main characters, a French girl named Marie Laure and a German boy named Werner. Marie Laure, who lives with her father in Paris, loses her eyesight when she is 6. Her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History, also is a carver and creates a detailed model of their home and neighborhood to help Marie Laure learn how to navigate independently. Their contented lives fall apart when German soldiers invade Paris. They end up at her great-uncle’s home in Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany.
Werner and his sister live at a German orphanage after their father is killed in a mining accident. One day Werner finds a broken radio in a neighbor’s garbage which ends up changing his life. He fixes the radio and discovers he has an aptitude for science and electronics. When Werner’s talents are realized, he is recruited into an elite military academy designed to crank out the top Hitler youths. Werner, who is a gentle soul and slight in build, feels out of place at the brutal school. Eventually his abilities are put to use in tracking Resistance fighters. Although he is happy he escaped his fate of working in the mines, he is tormented by the cruelty and inhumanity that goes along with war.
Doerr builds the tension slowly by adding a nasty Nazi officer who is dying from cancer and obsessed with finding a rare diamond that is supposed to grant eternal life. The secondary characters are well drawn and add humanity and color to the book, including Madame Manec, the elderly woman who cares for Marie Laure and her great-uncle while helping with the French Resistance.
This coming-of-age story during wartime is beautiful and heartbreaking. Doerr brilliantly captures people at their best and worst during hellish times. I read that he spent ten years writing All the Light You Cannot See. All his time and work shine in this brilliant novel.