All The Light We Cannot See
Premise: Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living with her single father in Paris, and Werner, a German orphan who dreams of becoming a scientist, find themselves on opposite sides of the Second World War. With dangers encroaching all around them, Marie-Laure is taken to the unfamiliar world of Saint-Malo and Werner is drafted into the German military at just 16 years old. Meanwhile, Marie-Laure’s father has been entrusted with a priceless diamond which is being hunted by a ruthless German officer.
There have been a lot of novels set during the awful period between 1939 and 1945 when the whole world was a war with itself. They tell stories of the horrors associated with the aerial bombardments, the unspeakable atrocities of the concentration camps, the ragtag bunch of heroes at Dunkirk or the Normandy beaches, the political wrangling behind the scenes, and the struggle to keep the home fires burning when the whole of Europe seemed to be ablaze.
With such a glut of literature covering every conceivable angle, the challenge for a novelist wanting to set their narrative during this period is to find something to make their work stand out from the crowd. And Anthony Doerr has certainly accomplished that, mainly by the choice of his two young protagonists. Through Marie-Laure, the daughter of a Parisian museum curator, we are given the familiar story from a fresh perspective because Marie-Laure is blind and therefore relies on touch and smell and sound to guide her through life. She learns her way around Paris from the models that her father builds her and when she is transplanted to Saint-Malo to live with her reclusive great-uncle again she relies on her non-visionary senses to paint the chaotic world around her.
On the other side of the brewing war, the book’s second narrative strand focusses on Werner who, in being plucked from obscurity to join the prestigious Schulpforta, also sees the world from a different perspective to those around him. Whilst the other boys are all sons of military officers or prominent politicians, he is a penniless orphan. We are told that “of one hundred and ten questions about his lineage, Werner can accurately answer only sixteen. The rest are guesses” – which would possibly be a problem in purity-obsessed Nazi Germany if it weren’t for the fact that he possesses a natural gift for science that elevates him above his fellow pupils.
The story itself is fascinating. It is non-linear with chunks of Marie-Laure’s life interspersed with that of Werner many miles away and fragments of the bombardment of Saint-Malo from the two characters’ future. It is about survival and difficult choices, loyalty and everything else you might expect from a story set during this period. However, there is also the hunt for a priceless diamond interweaved with everything else which sets up a horribly tense ending where Doerr pulls all the various narrative strands together into a satisfying knot. It is a story that tugs on the heartstrings and educates all at the same time. In short, a novel that everyone should find the time to read.
Other fantastic novels with a unique perspective on the Second World War: “The Book Thief” (Markus Zusak), “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (John Boyne), “Charlotte Gray” (Sebastian Faulks), “Atonement” (Ian McEwan)
Other highly rated books by this author: “About Grace”, “Memory Wall” (Short stories)