Here is a World War II novel that is mesmerizing. Two children: a French girl who loses her sight at age six, and a German orphan who’s a mechanical genius.
When France is occupied by the Germans, Marie-Laure’s father, a museum locksmith, takes her to Saint-Malo, to the home of his Uncle Etienne. Etienne has suffered from agoraphobia since World War I and hasn’t left his house in twenty years. Years earlier, he and his brother, Marie-Laure’s grandfather, broadcast science lessons for children on one of Etienne’s radio transmitters.
Werner and his sister Jutta heard the broadcasts in Zollverein, Germany. Their father died in the mines, and mining is all Werner can look forward to. He built the radio they listen to, and he records all the questions he has about life. After he repairs the radio of a wealthy man in town, he is “invited” to test for the National Political Institutes of Education. It is Werner’s opportunity to break free of the mining town and expand his education.
Marie-Laure’s father is called back to the museum. He leaves, and is arrested. Werner realizes his school teaches more political indoctrination than he can bear. Werner’s friend Frederick tells him, “Your problem is that you still believe you own your life.” He has to figure out he’s a mere cog in the Nazi machinery.
The story switches back and forth between the two characters, and jumps forward and backward in time. The time travel to 1944 and back to 1942 or earlier can be confusing. It seems a strange literary device to use. One thing for sure, it does not help to predict the outcome.
Throughout the novel, there is a fabulous, legendary diamond. It was removed from the museum. Did Marie-Laure’s father have it? Someone is searching for it. War isn’t the only danger.
The story details the deprived conditions of occupied France and the strictly control the Germans maintain over their own civilians. After the disappearance of Marie-Laure’s father, Etienne agrees to broadcast coded messages for the resistance. Marie-Laure is the courier.
As a German Wehrmacht soldier, Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to track radio. Yes, he and Marie-Laure meet, but the circumstances are wholly unexpected. So is the ending. I did not want it to end as it did. But this is a war story. War does terrible things.
Anthony Doerr’s prose is lyrical. Phrases like “The sea glides far below, spattered with countless chevrons of whitecaps,” pulled me in. The characters are appealing. When I had to set the book aside, my constant question was, “What’s going to happen next?”
All the Light We Cannot See is well worth reading.