Published by Scribner on May 6th 2014
Genres: historical fiction
I love history. I love historical fiction. When I first saw All The Light We Cannot See, I was very intrigued but also a little afraid. I wanted to love this book so much, but I wasn’t entirely sure how it would play out. Especially since one of the main characters is a blind girl; would her story come across on the page?
Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure's agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
I picked up the book anyway. I wanted to absorb this story, I wanted to read about these people. The first couple of pages took me a bit to get through. After all, they were setting the stage for the wondrous, rich prose that would follow. And pretty much from the 10th page in, I was hooked. And I couldn’t put it down.
If I was hesitant reading a story from the point of view of a blind girl, I should not have been. Anthony Doerr does a magnificent job at explaining exactly what is going on around Marie-Laure with all of the other senses she possesses. It’s like I was in her head experiencing everything she was experiencing, but I was also outside of her and able to see what she could not. It was wonderful, it was beautiful, and it made Marie-Laure my favourite character. I was tense the entire story, waiting for something bad to happen to her, hoping it wouldn’t, and afraid if it did.
Werner was a little harder for me to fall in love with, but I did. It was hard following him through his story with all the hardships that are put in front of him, and watching him as a little boy and young man make the best decisions he can. It’s interesting to see this part of history from his point of view. The simple hobby of fixing radios gets him a spot in Hitler Youth, and propels him forward on this insane path during the war. The assurance and innocence of a young boy turn into the questioning nature of a young man, and you get to watch it all unfold.
Now, what’s interesting for me was how insignificant the mention of the radio is. You think “oh it’s just a radio, just another piece of technology.” But this simple piece of machinery has such a powerful impact on the plot, and I loved the way it ended up tying the story lines together. After all, a simple thread can unravel an entire sweater (that’s a saying, right?).
If you love historical fiction, read this book. If you love getting emotionally invested in characters, read this book. If you love to read, read this book!