All The Light We Cannot See – Book Review #5
“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is a Pulitzer prize winner for fiction of sprawling 530-page novel which follows two protoganists during World War II.Marie-Laure Blanc is a six year old daughter of a master locksmith working for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) in Paris.She begins to lose her vision at a young age. To compensate her loss her father builds her a delightful miniatures – of the streets and houses of Paris, and in this way Marie-Laure learns to navigate the streets of her quarter with the help of a wooden scale-model made by her father.Marie-Laure orients herself by counting drain covers and trees and streets, memorising routes and recognising the scents of trees and flowers.He also sharpens her mind by hiding birthday gifts in intricate puzzle boxes that he carves.Ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the occupation through the books she can read in braille of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Darwin’s ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’. Marie-Laurie’s father has been entrusted with the task of harboring a valuable stone known as the Sea of Flames which allegedly endows its keeper with the gift of eternal life but curses all he loves with unending misfortune. “I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it,” says Marie-Laure.Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an 8 year old boy with a preternatural understanding of circuitry grows up in an orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta in the coal-mining town of Zollverein.Naturally bright and inquisitive, Werner and his sister learn all that they can from scraps and items around their city. It takes Werner only a few days to get a discarded radio to work again. The children at the home are thrilled to listen to various music and theater programs from it.Werner and his sister stay up late to listen to an educational program broadcast by a Frenchman.Turning the dial, they hear him talking about science: “What do we call visible light?” the Frenchman asks. “We call it color. But . . . really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”Werner is as entranced by these lessons particularly as Marie-Laure is by the writings of Jules Verne.As he grows older, his knack for repairing radios becomes known throughout the town. People pay him with extra food for his services.When a German lance corporal needs a radio fixed and Werner does what no adult could, he writes him a recommendation letter so he can take entrance exams to get into the National Political Institutes of Education.Werner is thrilled to escape the sentence of working in the mines and dying young like his father, of being able to learn in the open and tinker with radios.When the Nazis invade France in 1940, Marie and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to take refuge with her great-uncle Etienne. Etienne is a recluse still suffering shell-shock from the Great War.Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, her father conceals the Sea of Flames inside the wooden model he makes of Etienne’s house and of street in Saint-Malo.Oneday, Marie-Laure receives a letter from her father in which he explains he was taken prisoner by the Germans leaving Marie-Laure alone with her great-uncle Etienne and his housekeeper.Marie soon comes to love her eccentric uncle. Etienne seldom leaves the house, but he and Marie pretend adventures around the world. He shows her the ancient radio he and her grandfather built. They used it to send out recordings of her grandfather teaching science lessons for children; the same recordings Werner and his sister once loved.Werner learns the formulas to trace radio signals back to their original source. Eventually Werner is sent off to serve in the army in an elite unit searching for resistance outposts broadcasting illegal transmissions. Werner finds Etienne’s frequency, but does not report it as that reminded him of the recordings of a French Professor that he had listened to in his youth. Instead of telling his team about the broadcast, Werner locates it himself, finds Marie-Laure.There, with World War II breaking out and nearing the closing, across Europe, the lives of Marie-Laurie and Werner briefly intertwine.The Allies begin bombing Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure hides in Etienne’s cellar until the bombing is over.She climbs to the third floor for water and hears German officer Von Rumpel, who desperately wants to locate the Sea of Flames, enter the house looking for the diamond.After days hiding in the attic, Marie-Laure begins broadcasting. She reads “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” while Von Rumpel is asleep, as a way to let the townspeople know she is still alive.Werner, trapped by rubble in the basement of a hotel in the city with Volkheimer, hears Marie’s broadcasts.At one point she pauses and whispers, “Inside the closet is not a radio but a child sitting on her bottom with a bullet through her head”.Haunted by her fear, Werner goes to Etienne’s house and rescues Marie-Laure by killing von Rumpel. He helps her escape the city after putting the Sea of Flames and the model of Etienne’s house in an ocean grotto. Werner and Marie-Laure part ways.Marie-Laure reunites with Etienne while Werner is taken prisoner by the Allies and grows ill. Oneday, he deliriously wanders into a minefield, triggers an explosion, and is killed.The book ends in 2014 with Marie being still alive, still reliving the memories of the war and the people who helped her survive.She wonders if their souls still float through the sky like the radio waves over which she, her uncle and grandfather used to transmit stories to the world.Cutting back and forth in alternating timelines, every piece of back story reveals information that charges the emerging narrative with significance, until, at last, the puzzle slides open.The pages move about lyrical and in more detailed way that you would get sense of what the characters look and feel like and follow them throughout the book almost as if you are on a voyage.With 4 out of 5 star rating, I suggest it to be a good choice for the historical fiction lovers.The cliches were off the table and real life was set in motion. The author stayed true to life but in a magical and symbolic way.