As a newly announced finalist for the National Book Award, “All the Light We Cannot See” delivers the best you could ask for in historical fiction — the atmospherics are sharply described allowing readers to feel in the moment, and the stories of the two main characters are emotionally compelling.
Anthony Doerr’s novel follows two young people during some of Europe’s darkest days, from 1934 to 1944, when Germany occupied France. As you would expect, upheaval, loss and terror are a big part of the story, yet Doerr is able to soften the tale by inviting us gently into the lives of the two teens. In alternating chapters Doerr conveys the havoc the war reeks on the lives of the two vulnerable youths, Marie-Laure and Werner, with his stunning yet delicate writing.
Marie-Laure is a blind Parisienne who flees the city with her father as the Nazis invade. They seek refuge in the home of a great uncle on Saint-Malo, the water-bound town off the coast of Brittany. They are unaware of the danger that lies ahead. “For three thousand years, this little promontory has known sieges,” Doerr writes, “but never like this.”
Life for Marie-Laure becomes treacherous. She has relied only on her father to help her move through life. He had meticulously built a wooden model of their Paris neighborhood so she could learn every street and alley with her hands. But in a new environment with her father held by the Nazis she has lost all support. Her life moves ahead inside the four walls of the old man’s house.
Distinctive because of their frizzy, white hair and small stature, Werner and his sister live in an orphanage in Germany run by a kind, French nun. They have an old radio they listen to while the others sleep, keeping a list of the scattered cities they can tune into. The boy discovers a science program given by a Frenchman that answers all the questions he has thought about. Night after night he is drawn in. The technical knowledge he gains makes him a valuable asset in the Nazi communications effort.
Doerr begins the story with a chilling quote by Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or use it in the way we did without the radio.” The characters sit by their radios for information, connection with others, music and the war effort, and a radio is the thread that eventually connects their two stories.
The book hooked me in with its tiny first chapter set on Aug. 7, 1944. Doerr writes that white leaflets “pour from the sky … blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops … Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say, Depart immediately to open country.” This novel is a chilling but dazzling read.