Review for All the Light We Cannot See

“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”− Francis Bacon. Light and shadow wage war, trade places, and occupy ambiguous spaces in Anthony Doerr’s admirable and fast-moving recent novel All the Light We Cannot See.

Set in the period between Europe’s Great War and Hitler’s fulfillment of World War II, it gives ultimate homage to those who cherish knowledge and science in the face of blind hatred, war-mongering, and looting in the name of empire-building. They included a young blind girl whose beloved father is the locksmith at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and a scientifically brilliant orphan growing up in a Weimar-era Children’s Home in a depressed German coal-mining region.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is six when she loses her eyesight, but her father ensures her scientific education through familiarizing her with all parts of the museum. She learns through her heightened other senses about collections of fossilized fish, insects, bark, flamingo feathers, stones, and light bulbs. A mollusk expert tells her about visiting coral reefs and lets her hold seashells from all over the world. She is very bright, absorbing all the natural world has to offer her, with her papa’s loving guidance and help. He builds a miniature model of their neighborhood, which she fingers, learning her environment through touch and imagination. In pushing her to find her way through the neighborhood with her cane, he offers her the gift of confidence and independence. She dreams in color, assigning hues to the energies and objects she feels around her.

Werner Pfennig and his artistic sister Jutta are each other’s best friends, living at the orphanage in Essen, Germany, a coal-mining city where their parents died. Brought up with others by a loving but frazzled matron, Frau Elena, the eight-year-old Werner explores the dirty trash heaps and industrial horizons of Zollverein Coal Complex on his own and with his six-year-old sister.

Upon finding a primitive broken radio in the trash, Werner figures out a way to coax from it a stream of consonants and vowels, strings and pianos and woodwinds. Like a modern magician he quickly tunes in far-off exotic cities, and he and his sister find a fascinating science and broadcast by an older gentleman speaking French, as interesting to them as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was in real life for children watching in the 1970s and 1980s. The increasing signs of German bellicosity that taint future members of the Hitler Youth in the orphanage dampen Werner’s natural brilliance and desire to be a famous engineer. Also he knows that his fate, as an orphan, is to go down into the mines at age 15.

Throughout the novel Doerr shows the brutality and senselessness of twentieth-century war in warping modern scientific progress and the human capacity for knowledge. War has the force to explode not only routine but also spit shrapnel into the best-laid plans. When Werner successfully fixes the radio of an important member of the Third Reich, he is offered an escape from the drudgery of mining through the incipient war. He gladly takes the chance to go to a severe, elite school that will train him as a technical radio expert. In doing so, he does not know that his future is already sealed and tainted by his world’s brutal and single-minded interests in domination and destruction.

A locksmith, Marie-Laure’s father makes her puzzle boxes, intricate hiding places for fanciful objects that he gives her on birthdays. His museum asks him to make such a hiding place for a mineral belonging to the museum, a gorgeous diamond called the Sea of Flames that has legends surrounding it. One states that anyone who possesses the diamond cannot be killed, but their friends and relatives will experience severe misfortune. As rumors spread that the Nazis are coming, Monsieur LeBlanc is given one of four copies of the stone, so that none of them can steal it or know who has the real object. Rumor also has it that if the stone is thrown into the sea, it will cease to have power over the possessor.

The imaginative and sweet-natured Werner leaves his sister behind, ignoring her plain sighted disgust for the Nazis’ smoke and mirrors. He goes to school to join the German military and fulfill his plans of being a famous engineer after the war. After the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris by foot, finding their way eventually to the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where the sea laps against the city walls. There they hide with Monsieur LeBlanc’s great-uncle Etienne, so scarred by the Great War that he has refused to leave his six-story house for years. Marie-Laure’s father builds yet another tiny neighborhood to scale, leaving one part a puzzle box containing what may be a priceless treasure.

As the war explodes around Werner, the radio expert, and Marie-Laure, the naturalist who loves reading her Braille copies of Jules Verne adventure books, light still connects them both—the light of pure learning, and the web of connection between them based on Marie-Laure’s grandfather’s science broadcasts, which Werner heard as a young boy. They are destined to cross paths in their separate stories of waging war and resisting it.

In a modern world of ethical darkness, Marie-Laure and Werner are the light, despite his unwanted commission to find and destroy those using radio broadcasts that unite partisans and resistance movements. Doerr’s story defies those who would use technology to destroy humanity, even as mid-century scientists created an atom bomb that created hell on earth for hundreds of thousands of people. He celebrates the ineffable beauty of nature, visible and invisible, and scientific achievement, along with the redemption that comes from loving those who educate you, inspire you, and bring you joy.

Written by: Miriam R. Kramer

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