For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.
In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
I’m going to be honest up front, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s long, it’s brutal and it will hit you hard.
It’s a story uniquely told, with Doerr using concurrent timelines and perspectives with a deftness I haven’t experienced in a long time. The narrative moves between Werner and Marie-Laure in August 1944, a little over a year before the end of the Second World War, and their lives in the years leading up to that day – which, it isn’t a spoiler to say, is something of a fateful one. While the format has of course been done before, the way Doerr masterfully handled the many – many – different strands of this story kept me on absolute tenterhooks, even when I couldn’t be sure where it was all going.
In many ways, Marie-Laure and Werner are two sides of the same coin. They both grow up curious, clever children dealing with some adverse circumstances – Werner, being in an orphanage and destined for the mines where his father lost his life, and Marie-Laure with the loss of her sight when she is six years old. But Werner lives in Germany during the rise of Nazism, and his talent with radios soon means he’s swept into the brutality, abuse and horrors of training with the Nazi Youth, and subsequently serving in the German army.
But does hating the horrors in which you are a participant make you a good person?
Of course it doesn’t.
While Werner does what he must to survive with the Hitler Youth, Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne, a mentally ill veteran of the First World War, dive head first into the resistance movement. From their little French town of Saint Malo they send and receive covert messages for the resistance that would see them killed by the Nazis should they ever be discovered.
In addition to his use of time and perspective, Doerr also weaves magical elements into the novel in a way that felt seamless. The entire story is haunted by a cursed diamond known as the Sea of Flames, placed in the care of Marie-Laure’s father by the museum he works at when the war breaks out. The stone makes its owner impossible to kill – but at a cost. The holder is safe, but around them their loved ones drop like flies.
At least that’s how the legend goes.
It doesn’t help that the damned rock is being chased by a dying Nazi general, determined to track the thing down before his rapidly spreading cancer finally kills him. I suppose it’s hardly surprising a Nazi wouldn’t mind the caveats that come with possession of the cursed diamond.
The story moves constantly between these flights of whimsy – a cursed diamond, the to-scale model cities Marie-Laure’s father builds for her to help her navigate without her sight – and the grim realities of Nazi life. The shocking acts of violence perpetrated by German soldiers are detailed with a blunt detachedness that demonstrate Werner’s attempts at disassociation from the war crimes he is complicit in perpetrating, regardless of whether or not he pulled the trigger.
I think What All The Light We Cannot See does better than I’ve ever read before is narration of the everyday of a country at war. The peculiar mundanity in the descriptions of violence, paired with the endless boredom (because you can be bored even as you are terrified) Marie-Laure experiences, confined in her great-uncle’s house so she doesn’t cross paths with any German soldiers, show the absolutely relentlessness of it.
It’s not hard to see why people break.
As the story progresses and I finally found myself hurtling toward 1944, all the disparate elements of the novel came together in a horrifying, utterly absorbing crescendo.
There are moments while reading that you do start to wonder where it’s all going. At 530 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read, and there are times where it seems as if the plot is meandering.
It’s not. Keep reading. If there’s one thing I knew by the end of this book it’s that Anthony Doerr knows exactly what he’s doing.