All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a 2014 Historical Fiction novel set during World War Two, and follows three principal characters; the blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the German Genius, Werner, and the villainous Von Rumpel. The characters eventually cross paths in Saint-Malo, a small town on the coast of Brittany, France.
Marie-Laure is the daughter of a locksmith, Daniel LeBlanc, who works for the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. She is blinded in her youth and explores her world using a model town of Paris, made for her by her father. Though blind, she is fascinated by that which she does not know about and learns primarily through spoken stories told to her by Dr. Geffard, or in her brail books. Her favorite book is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.
The Sea of Flame is introduced in Marie-Laure’s first chapter, and it is practically a character all on its own. Supposedly a remnant from a Sultan’s son, the blue diamond with a heart of orange-red fire, is famously valued. And cursed. The owner of the diamond would live forever, safe from harm. Yet all those around the wielder would die or suffer harm. Supposedly, it is locked deep in the vaults of the Museum of Paris. When the Nazis invade France in 1940, the Museum director orders fakes made of the diamond and sends them wildly in the four winds. One is given to the head of security, another a mineralogist expert, another hidden in the Museum. The real stone, however, is given to Daniel LeBlanc. Daniel’s uncle lives in Brittany in their family home, and Daniel flees there with Marie in the early days of the invasion.
Sergeant Reinhold von Rumpel is an Aryan jeweler. When the war breaks out, the Reich requires gem experts to appraise wealth stolen. Von Rumpel, always ambitious, uses this opportunity to gain rank as the only ‘real’ german jewel expert. However, von Rumpel is dying of cancer. He is not searching for the Sea of Flames for the Reich, but for himself. He plans to steal the precious stone, to cure his cancer and live forever. And this obsession drives him mad. In the end, the Nazi Officer resorts to frightening children and pissing in a bucket before engaging in a gunfight he would later lose.
Werner Pfennig is an orphan, born in Zollverein, Germany. Zollverein is a coal mining town on the Rhein, and it is integral to the German war effort, with all the orphans being expected to work, and eventually die, in the Mines. Werner, however, is a curious and intelligent young man. He finds a broken radio and fixes it, using it to listen to broadcasts of “The Frenchman.” These broadcasts, generally consisting of short science lessons. This encourages Werner to learn more about the mechanics of the world around him. Eventually, after helping out the local magistrate fix their radio, Werner is brought to the Youth’s Military academy, where Werner is to invent a new radio and become a solid member of the Hitler Youth. But Werner is a compassionate fellow, who avoids taking part in the cruelty of the German “Weakest” program, and even befriends a frail, introspective boy named Frederick, until Frederick is made catatonic after abuse suffered from fellow students and their cruel instructor, Bastian. Eventually sent to the front in Ukraine and later to Brittany, Werner spends most of his life mindlessly drifting, all the while a prisoner in his own circumstances.
There is more to the story, such as the tragic story of Etienne (Marie-Laure’s Great Uncle) or that of Frau Elena, but those are best read in the novel, not in a review. The story is beautiful and filled with fantastic characterization.
A unique part of the story is the chapters from Maire’s perspective. She cannot see, (So that’s all light to her, I suppose), and thus the descriptions in her chapters rely on touching, hearing, and smelling, giving the story a unique perspective. This lack of sight adds another element of terror to the scene where she and the brutal von Rumpel are locked in Etienne’s townhouse. She does not know what is going on, and neither do we. Is von Rumpel creeping up on her? Has the house caught on fire? Or is there someone else in the house? We do not know, and the sense of suspense is palpable.
The story also provides an interesting and nuanced view of the war. It obviously does not equate the Nazis with the Allies, which would be wrong, but it does show a compassionate and intelligent side of Werner, who is only 15. With him in the Hilter Youth is Frederick, a kind-hearted young man who only wants to study birds, and the giant, Volkheimer, who can strangle the life from a Russian or weep to classical music. Meanwhile, Jutta, Werner’s younger sister, and the small collection of German girls who were moved to Berlin to work on the war effort, are raped by the Russians. While the defeat of Nazi Germany was a good thing, and the Russians were an essential part of that victory, not everyone is simply “good” compared to the Nazis. From the perspective of Jutta, the Allies are just as terrifying and abusive to the common folk as the Nazis to the allies. These characters have depth and lead the reader to question the motives behind some Nazi soldiers, as well as the motives and actions of some of the Allies themselves, regardless of the justice of their overall cause.
The book’s sections are also divided across timelines. In fact, the first time we hear or see our major cast of characters, its 1945 in Saint-Malo during the Allied siege. We hear of their endings before we hear of their beginnings, until they slowly coalesce, thus revealing the overlap of their individual stories.
Fundamentally, All the Light We Cannot See is a study of characters; off how war can scar us; of the innate cruelty of humanity; and of how the deep goodness in Werner, Marie-Laure, Etienne, and even Volkheimer can break your heart. All of these characters are nuanced, complex, and real. Overall, this story deserves a Nine out of Ten, limited by relatively poor pacing in the first section of the novel. However, this error is (mostly) made up for in the end, as I struggled to put the book down once the plot picked up.