Published by Scribner on May 6th 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
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Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
The TL;DR: Beautifully written, unique World War II story. It is 500+ pages, but the short chapters make the pages fly by. I didn’t have a strong emotional connection with the book, but it was still well worth the read.
The long version:
All the Light We Cannot See takes place during World War II and tells the story of Werner, a young German boy, and Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of a Parisian museum locksmith. When France is invaded by the Nazis, the mythical Sea of Flames diamond (or a replica) is put under the protection of Marie-Laure’s father and the two flee to Saint-Malo. Werner’s love of radio makes him a great asset to the war and he is recruited for the Nazi war effort. We follow Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives separately until their paths eventually collide.
The story moves back and forth in time and between characters. Sections about August 7-14 1944 alternate with sections about the longer time period of 1934-May 1944. The sections are clearly labeled. Within the sections the chapters alternate between Werner’s and Marie’s stories and eventually Von Rumpel, a character on a mission, is added. The chapters are very short, so the 500 pages really flew by. It really has so many elements that appeal to me: miniatures, love of books, science, nature and museums. The love between father and daughter is touching. Marie-Laure father builds her miniatures of her neighborhood, so that she can learn to navigate the streets her own.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks. “
It is so gorgeously written and I read slow on purpose so I wouldn’t miss a single word! The list of beautiful quotes I wrote down is pretty much a novel itself. Many of the ones I wrote down aren’t even thematically important, just beautiful descriptions of the world. Doerr’s descriptions include all the senses; not just sight, but sound, touch, smell and taste. Through his multi-faceted descriptions, we get a glimpse into how Marie-Laure experiences the world.
The Sea of Flames diamond was a unique and effective way to tie all the different pieces of the story together. If you are a concerned about the fantastical magic gem element, I never got the impression that the gem was anything more than superstition. Some things are so terrible that it is just easier to believe that some mystical force is behind them, rather than believe that our fellow man is capable of the atrocities by their own free will. I think that anything that confirmed the stones mystical powers was just coincidence. Von Rumpel was just desperate dying man and the Sea of Flames was his last hope. He would have died with or without the stone.
It’s the absence of all the bodies, she thinks, that allows us to forget. It’s that the sod seals them over.
Werner’s story is especially interesting, because it illustrates how little choice he had for the direction his life took. Just look at what happened to Frederick! Werner was not a “true believer,” but was simply at the wrong place in the wrong decade. It is a shame his talents couldn’t have been used for a positive goal. Of course when he did have choices to make, he usually chose the path of least resistance. That is probably true of most people though. I think that was part of the disconnect I had with this character. He’s mental struggle didn’t ring true to me and he came off as a little simplistic.
Many of the popular dystopias are set in the future, but the more books about war, the more I remember that dystopian settings are and have been a reality for way too many people. I thought back to this book while I was reading I Am Malala. There were so many parallels with the slow creep of authoritarianism and powerless people doing the best they can for their own survival. One thing that really struck me during Werner’s sister’s anxious trip to France was how terrible atrocities occur, but once the war ends and the world quickly rebuilds, everything continues on as nothing ever happened, except for a few scattered reminders. It is haunting to think about all those people walking around trying to forget the terrible things they saw and the things they were forced to do in order to survive. A shared memory that no one wants to talk about.
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
My only criticism is that something about the book kept me at an emotional distance. I felt more invested in the supporting cast. I loved the Marie’s relationships with the characters around her, but I had a trouble connecting with her and the other two main characters as individuals. Maybe Marie-Laure was a little too good, Werner was a little too passive for too long, and Von Rumpel a little too mustache-twirly. Maybe the short chapters and the constant flipping between characters made it harder for me to connect. Emotional connection is such a personal thing, so I would still recommend this book as a must read and a must re-read.
As an aside, this book is a great sales pitch for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I never had any desire to read it before this AtLYCS!
If you liked this book, you might like The Book Thief (WWII, German perspective, a magical quality), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (war, gorgeous writing, empathy for characters you wouldn’t expect) and possibly Life After Life (there are WWII parts with a German perspective). I also thought back to this book when reading the The Buried Giant, but as a warning, I was one of only five people who liked that one!
It takes him a long time to come down the ladder. He takes her hand. He says, “The war that killed your grandfather killed sixteen million others. One and a half million French boys alone, most of them younger than I was. Two million on the German side. March the dead in a single-file line, and for eleven days and eleven nights, they’d walk past our door. This is not rearranging street signs, what we’re doing, Marie. This is not misplacing a letter at the post office. These numbers, they’re more than numbers. Do you understand?”
“But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?”
“I hope so. I hope we are.”