All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.
But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.
When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.
Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.
The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.
The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.
That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.
Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”
The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.
The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.
The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.