By Marcia Allen, Technical Services & Collection Manager
Are you looking for a novel with exquisitely beautiful language? If so, I have the perfect story for you. “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr is a book that will dazzle you with its turn of phrase, with its amazingly precise imagery. When a little blind girl, for example, is finally able to navigate the streets of her town without fear and arrive home with her father, the author tell us, “In another half second her father’s hands are under her armpits, swinging her up, and Marie-Laure smiles, and he laughs a pure, contagious laugh, one she will try to remember all her life, father and daughter turning in circles on the sidewalk in front of their apartment house, laughing together while snow sifts through the branches above.” This book will also astound you with the ugliness that it conveys. To bombardiers approaching the city they are to shell, “…the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”
What is the book about? When the story opens, we read of the now-sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure who is alone on the sixth floor of a house on the coast of a French city. Left in the care of her great-uncle, she worries that he will not or cannot return home, as the year is 1944, and the city is under siege by American bombers. For comfort, she uses her hands to explore a tiny model of her uncle’s city, one her father constructed for her some years earlier when she first lost her sight. A puzzle with a series of steps that opens hidden recesses, the model also contains a priceless jewel that might well be a treasure linked to her father’s position of locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
But this is not only Marie-Laure’s story. In alternating chapters, we also read of a young German private, Werner Pfennig. He, too, is living in the city, but in a much different capacity. An early aptitude for repairing and building radios has landed him a coveted position in the Hitler Youth. So, the opening lines of the story find him rushing to the cellar of the once-lavish L’hotel des Abeilles (Hotel of Bees) to escape an air raid. His story opens a mere few blocks from where Marie-Laure sits in solitude. But first, the author supplies a series of flashbacks that will lead these two characters to their encounter with each other.
Marie-Laure’s childhood was blessed with a patient, loving father. When the child suddenly lost her vision, her father schooled her through complex steps that allowed her to live as independently as possible. Birthday gifts included lovely Braille editions of great classics, as well as the intricate puzzles modeled after the buildings of the town. Each puzzle could be opened only with delicate steps: a twist here, or a push there, to reveal a tiny treasure.
Werner’s childhood was something altogether different. He and his sister were orphaned at an early age, their father one of many casualties in the local mine. He grew up among a family of orphans at Children’s House in a time when hunger and hardship were the norm. Highly curious and quite capable with his hands, young Werner saw Hitler Youth, not as a desirable career, but as an opportunity to avoid working in the mines.
This story, then, is one of the connection between two souls caught in the horrors of World War II. And it is about the survivors, those who grew up too quickly during the turmoil. Ultimately, this lovely book is one of revelation, the discovery of truths long hidden.
Author Doerr has been the recipient of a multitude of awards, among them Pushcart Prizes, O. Henry Prizes and a Guggenheim Fellowship. I invite you to open the pages of this lovely book and experience what can only be described as a new classic.