I read Anthony Doerr’s book after finishing two books that didn’t work too well for me and so the experience of dipping into the first few pages of Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was like exiting the murky depths of a turbulent current to float in that gentle swell of the ocean just before the breakwater, where the waves lift us up and down like a life buoy without breaking.
Reading Doerr’s words and meeting his characters Marie-Laure, Werner and Jutta caresses the mind like the sea cradling the body as if it were weightless.
That light, the gentle caress of words that uplift, that intrigue, that follow through on their promise, that warns of tragedy and provides the reader with a guide to navigate the pages that follow.
Marie-Laure and her father live within walking distance of the Natural History Museum in Paris, where he works as the master of locks, the keyholder. When she is six Marie-Laure loses her sight and every year after that her father builds her a wooden structure that is a kind of puzzle box. Using her hands, she explores the gift to finds its hidden secret and despite its increasing sophistication and difficulty, each year it takes her less time to crack its ingenious code, opening it to reveal the gift within.
He also builds her a model of their neighbourhood, every home, building, street. She memorises it until she is ready to go out and discover the area in its life-size proportion. When the Germans occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo to stay with her reclusive Uncle and his housekeeper where they must build another model she will learn to navigate.
“For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.
But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static, to her fingers it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile.”
Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in Germany, their father killed in a coal mining accident. Werner has a fascination for radio, both listening to and repairing them; the siblings discover and listen to broadcasts from as far away as France and England until war approaches, when to be in possession of a radio becomes a dangerous and illegal pastime. However, his talent has not gone unnoticed and will fast-track him into the midst of Hitler’s youth and a role as a detector of radio signals, leading him in wartime to the north of France.
“At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.”
I really enjoyed this book, it made me care about the characters and interested in their lives and worry about them being on opposite sides of a great war. How could that ever be navigated safely?
Doerr describes the two different worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner with such clarity, overcoming blindness and interesting us in the intricacies of radio circuitry, pathways of electrons, amplifiers and transformer coils as if they were the most fascinating thing ever invented.
It is a story of survival, perseverance, passion and obsession set in the years leading up to and during WWII, it brings the streets, homes and sea wall of Saint Malo into the reader’s imagination where we too learn to see without seeing. And it will may make you curious to read Jules Verne if you haven’t already.
Anthony Doerr transmits an infectious enthusiasm for the story, creating endearing characters with rich, enticing prose, all the elements of great literary fiction that can entertain.
New York Times Review – Light Found in Darkness of Wartime
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.