“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”
In 1934, at the age of six, Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her eyesight. Her father, Daniel LeBlanc, is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds Marie-Laure a scale model of their neighbourhood to help her navigate, and she spends her days with him at the Museum, reading Jules Verne in Braille. But their peaceful life is upset by the German invasion, and they flee the Nazi occupation of Paris, taking refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo. Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, the Museum has entrusted her father with an item from its collection. What Daniel LeBlanc does not know is if it is the real artefact, or one of the three duplicates that was made to serve as a decoy. Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig is orphan who lost his mother to illness and his father to the coal mines of Zollverein. He has a passion for radios and math. When war comes, these skills draw him to the attention of the Reich, and he is selected to attend a special military prep school where talented young Germans are indoctrinated into National Socialism.
Anthony Doerr builds a sense of destiny into his sweeping, interwoven narrative of two children on opposite sides of World War II. Long before Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths finally come together in the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, Werner lies in bed at night with his repaired radio, picking up the distant broadcast of a French professor who discusses science. The voice belongs to Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who died in the Great War, but whose voice lives on in the recordings he produced. The book is overwrought with these tiny details that eventually flow together with a sense of inevitability. Doerr employs an extremely intricate time line that weaves back and forth through history at very short intervals—the chapters are usually only a handful of pages long, though sometimes it is only the point of view character and not the time period that changes. This works in the sense that the siege of Saint-Malo—with which the story begins and keeps returning to—is the part of the story that has the most tension, but it also makes the timeline of the story complicated to follow.
Marie-Laure is totally blind for most of the story, and her main form of navigation involves counting storm drains with her cane. Her father builds her two models, first a replica of their Paris neighbourbood, in the time before the war, and then a second when they flee to take refuge with his uncle in Saint-Malo on the Brittany Coast. These scale models are designed to teach Marie-Laure the shape of her neighbourhood, so she can navigate alone. Yet her family is caught between this detailed obsession with granting her independence, and an overwhelming protectiveness that leaves her seeming childlike and strangely innocent for a person caught in the middle of an occupation.
If Marie-Laure’s family attempts to shelter her in a way that is not realistic for the times she lives in, Werner gets the opposite of protection. The military school Schulpforta is a brutal indoctrination, constantly forcing the pupils to goad one another to higher achievement, for fear of being singled out as the weakest. While Werner achieves some measure of protection when he is selected to work on a special project to track the source of radio transmissions with one of the teachers, his best friend Frederick is ill-equipped to conceal his weaknesses and his sensitivity from the other boys. Werner’s conscience is a fragile and battered thing, too often given voice only by his sister, Jutta. When he cannot justify his own actions, nor can he bear to write to his sister, who goes months without word of him. (Spoilers/Trigger Warning: Jutta was a character with interesting potential, but she is neglected for most of the story, only to be brought back on stage in the final pages to be raped by Russian soldiers in a scene that felt perfunctory and unnecessary.)
As the Germans pillage Europe’s art collections, Doerr introduces a third point of view character; Sergeant Von Rumpel is sent to track down the famous Sea of Flames, a near-mythic stone that was reportedly in the collection of the Museum of Natural History. Legend has it that the gem is both blessed and cursed; the bearer of the stone cannot die, but those around him will pay the price. Contrasted with this mythic stone is the power of technology and its pivotal role in the conflict. The radio centers in the novel from the earliest pages, when Werner and Jutta repair an old shortwave, and use it to tune into French broadcasts. As the Reich asserts more and more control over its citizens, foreign frequencies are banned, and only state-sponsored German programming is permissible. Jews are not allowed to own radios at all, and the citizens of occupied France are also required to turn in their devices. Radios are pivotal both to the spread of German propaganda and the efforts of the French Resistance.
I read this book mixed media, going through part of it in audiobook form, and then finishing it in hard copy when my download expired before I got through the book. All the Light We Cannot See is long with detailed writing, and the plot, while tense at some points, moves languidly at others. The narration of the audiobook was generally good, but would have benefited from a reader who could better pronounce the many French words. Overall, I felt the book itself worked better, as the short chapters with frequent time changes were easy to lose track of when listening to the audio version.
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