All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was recommended to my in last summer by my friend Govindan, and I am so delighted to have discovered it. It is a fantastic book – beautifully written, with a captivating story that grips you to the end.
It follows the life of Marie-Laure, who had been blind since the age of six. When we meet her she is living in Paris with her father, who helps her navigate through the world and through the local streets, building up her confidence by taking her on routes between their apartment and his workplace The Museum of Natural History. He gets her to count the drains as they pass, remember where they turn left or right, and to smell the distinctive smells of her surroundings. He is a talented woodsmith and so makes her a miniature wooden model of her neighbourhood to help her learn her way around.
Their tranquil life is swiftly brought to an end as the Nazis invade France and make their way towards Paris and she and her father have to flee the city. They make a treacherous journey across the French countryside, sleeping rough and managing to keep themselves alive until they reach the relative safety of a St Malo townhouse, where they take refuge with a kindly relative who is trapped in his home due to agrophobia resulting from his experiences in the first world war. Life in occupied France becomes more and more complex for the small family and those that help them, as they become involved with the resistance, and as Marie-Laure’s father tries to keep safe the precious object entrusted to him by the museum.
Meanwhile, we also follow the story of Werner, a young orphan growing up in Germany, who escapes going down the mines by being spotted by the Hitler Youth for his ability to mend mechanical objects. Despite the warnings of Werner’s sister of what the Nazis are really like and that he must not get involved, Werner finds himself at an elite school for the Hitler Youth, slowly finding his moral justifications for being there harder and harder to live with, until he is tipped into the war and has to put his ability with radios into practice.
There are beautiful twists and turns as these two stories come together, as the St Malo townhouse attic and its radio draw Marie-Laure and Werner together across time and space in the novel’s climax. There follows satisfying closure as the story skips forward decades, bringing those who care about Werner and Marie-Laure together at last.
This is a wonderful novel and one I would highly recommend to anyone who loves beautiful writing, a great story, and who, like me, is fascinated by the second world war.