All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner) opens in a breathtaking panorama: leaflets flutter down from the sky. On them is a warning to the inhabitants of the coastal town of Saint-Malo: “Depart immediately to open country.” It's 1944, during World War II, and the town will soon be bombed. A 16-year-old girl, Marie-Laure, retrieves a leaflet through her open window. She can smell the ink and feel the texture of the paper, but she can’t see the words; she has been blind for years. She senses the danger, understands the urgency, but doesn't know the exact reason. A few blocks over, a young white-blond German soldier named Werner takes cover in the cellar of the Hotel of Bees.
After this introduction to the main characters, the timeline shifts back a few years, when both characters were younger. Marie-Laure and her father retreat from their home in Paris to find somewhere safe to live, eventually ending up with a reclusive relative and his housekeeper in Saint-Malo. Werner, an orphan in Germany, is recruited at an early age to join the Hitler Youth. As the timeline jigs and jags between 1941 and 1944, each main character embarks on a journey of wartime survival, leaving the reader to wonder for more than 400 pages how (or if) their stories will intersect. Both Marie-Laure and Werner must learn to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, decide whom to trust, and discern right from wrong.
This is what Anthony Doerr does with great skill in his new novel: through short chapters, clipped sentences, and the rat-tat-tat of action verbs, he conjures up a vibrating, crackling world. We can hear the static on the radio and feel the saltwater breeze on our skin. Doerr deliberately uses short chapters to create a lot of white space to make up for the denseness of his prose. For the most part, it works. His brief, crystal-clear scenes set against the dramatic backdrop of France’s Brittany coastline will captivate all sorts of bookworms, though enthusiasts of “quiet” novels may raise their eyebrows at some of the novel’s cinematic flourishes. (E.g. There is a major plot line involving a rare, beautiful diamond rumored to be cursed). This all adds up to an accessible book for readers anywhere on the literary spectrum.
"The light we cannot see" superficially refers to Marie-Laure’s blindness — but it also illuminates (sorry!) Doerr’s optimistic worldview, which colors the novel: Evil and darkness may hover over everything, especially in times of war, but goodness and light still manage to peek through. If All the Light had an evil twin, it would be Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird , a book that takes hold of any glimmer of hope you might have had for the state of civilization and ruthlessly snuffs it out. At times, All the Light risks running too far in the opposite direction. Marie-Laure and Werner are sympathetic and likable because they are innocents caught up in the great big, evil machine of war. Doerr could have pushed them a little deeper into those dark corners and forced them to fight their way out of them with their moral compass still intact.
Anthony Doerr’s fictional landscape is an intricately, beautifully crafted one indeed, much like the miniature models of the city Marie-Laure’s father builds to help her navigate her way through the streets. He doesn’t leave out a single chimney or shutter. By the final pages, All the Light We Cannot See left me breathless, dazzled by the scenery, although I wished I’d gotten to know the people better, seen the characters’ hearts and souls as vividly as the world spinning around them.