In Anthony Doerr’s riveting novel, All the Light We Cannot See, we meet 16-year-old blind girl Marie-Laure and 17-year-old Nazi soldier Werner as they are hunkered down in separate corners of the French seaside town of Saint-Malo during the American liberation of the Nazi occupied city. Through alternating chapters that jump back and forth in time between 1934 and 1944, Doerr beautifully tells the story of these two children, doomed by the war, and destined to meet.
In 1934, 6-year-old Marie-Laure loses her sight from a degenerative condition. Although her mother died in childbirth, her doting papa is relentless in helping Marie-Laure relearn her world. The master locksmith at Paris’ Natural History Museum, Daniel LeBlanc is also an exceptional miniaturist and puzzle maker. He creates a miniature version of the Paris block they live on, complete with sidewalks and street lamps. He guides her on the walk to and from the museum every day until one day, two years later, Marie-Laure is able to guide him. Her father’s love and the confidence he gave her sustains Marie-Laure once she is forced to become self-sufficient.
At the same time, in a coal-mining complex in near Essex, Germany, Werner lives with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage. Curious Werner is clearly a gifted child and peppers the benevolent head of the orphanage, Frau Elena, with continuous streams of questions. One day, Werner comes across a discarded radio. It takes him three weeks, but he finally gets the spool of wires to pick up a station playing music. Six years later, Werner’s talent with radios captures the attention of a high-ranking mining official. And it’s he who writes a letter of recommendation for Werner for a coveted spot in the most prestigious SS school, saving him from the fate of his father, who died working in the coal mines, and simultaneously sealing his fate as a Nazi child soldier.
The reader travels both backward and forward through these characters lives as they move closer and closer to each other until they are finally in the same place at the same time. Doerr does a brilliant job of weaving this kind of six degrees of separation story together so that the reader can’t even guess at the links until they are slowly revealed. The prose is simple and lyrical. It perfectly captures the innocence of youth and then, later, the loss of it. Each short chapter overflows with the intense emotions of the time and is packed with enough action to make the novel an unlikely, gripping page-turner. A National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is easily one of the best books of the year and not to be missed.