All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is set primarily during the Second World War, but it ends in 2014. “Every hour,” muses a character on the penultimate page, “someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.” The line offers a poignant reminder that soon, no witnesses will remain to recount what they remember; to an extent we cannot yet measure, novels such as Doerr’s will inform how subsequent generations perceive this particular past. Novels can’t serve as textbooks, but All the Light We Cannot See imparts an awareness of French and German wartime history that extends beyond the fictional lives of its characters.

Like the architectural models and radio devices that appear throughout the book, the novel is intricately constructed. Some complexity stems from the multiple plotlines: the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a sightless young French girl; that of Werner Pfennig, an orphaned native of Germany’s coal country; and, in a tertiary thread, the quest of cancer-stricken Austrian gemologist Reinhold von Rumpel. Additionally, the book interweaves segments set during the August 1944 siege of the French city of Saint-Malo with those depicting the central characters — in France, Germany, and elsewhere — as far back as 1934.

As the Germans advance into France in the spring of 1940, Marie-Laure and her devoted father, Daniel, take part in a mass exodus from their Parisian home. They land in Saint-Malo, on France’s northwest coast. There, in a city also soon to fall under German occupation (Saint-Malo is far from what became known as the “free zone,” based in Vichy), they take refuge with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle. And there, Daniel LeBlanc, previously chief locksmith for France’s National Museum of Natural History, constructs a model of the city analogous to one he had made back in Paris to help his daughter navigate her immediate world.

Meanwhile, over in Germany, young Werner evinces remarkable interest in and talent for radio communications. Plucked from the orphans’ home in which he and his sister, Jutta, have been living, Werner is placed in an elite Nazi training school. In 1942, when he is just sixteen, he is assigned to a technology division of the Wehrmacht. By August 1944, he, too, is in Saint-Malo. As is the gemologist, whom the war has transformed into a quietly terrifying Nazi sergeant-major immensely proud of his own “unnatural patience.”

The novel is so rich — with images, descriptions, characters, and history — that this review could be titled “All the Things We Cannot Detail in 700 Words.” An incomplete list: The role of music. The legend attached to a precious jewel. Repeated allusions to Jules Verne’s work. Doerr’s reliance on the present tense. An extraordinary degree of sensory detail (and not only when it comes to Marie-Laure’s perceptions, which by definition exclude the visual). Not to mention the powerful concluding chapters, in which Doerr deftly ties together his narrative threads.

The layers of historical context are given similarly thorough attention.  Beyond conventional (if nonetheless still shocking) examples of Nazi cruelty, Doerr conveys less familiar aspects of the war: the lingering trauma of the conflict three decades earlier; the plight of French prisoners languishing in Germany; the Russian military’s assaults on German women; the siege of Saint-Malo itself. Meanwhile, the German effort to eradicate European Jewry emerges through subtle yet persistent devices. In general, Doerr doesn’t render this history explicitly. Rather, he seems to anticipate the reader’s ability to infer the significance of von Rumpel’s “Aryan” identifications, a Jewish Berliner’s disappearance, and the provenance of the “hundreds of little diamonds, most still in necklaces, bracelets, cuff links, or earrings” stored in “a warehouse outside Lodz.”
In the hands of some novelists, the weight of all these elements and details might result in a clumsy final product, but All the Light We Cannot See never loses its artistic way. Anyone who has read Doerr’s previous books — the short story volumes The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the novel About Grace, and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome — already knows that the man is a prodigiously gifted writer. Anyone who discovers the author through this newest book will realize it soon enough.