All the Light We Cannot See a Radiant Triumph

All the Light We Cannot See (2104)
Anthony Doerr
Scribner's, 531 pp. ISBN: 1476746583
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I am being neither glib nor histrionic when I proclaim Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See a transcendent novel. Any discussion of best novels of 2014 that does not include this book is that of the unenlightened conversing in the dark.

Doerr's masterful tale is set in Saint-Malo during the 1944 D-Day invasion of France. Through flashback and fast forward techniques we relive the fall of France to the Nazis, the inner workings of the French Resistance, how children lost their innocence, liberation, and the myriad cruelties and acts of small kindness that take place in a land under siege. Above all, it is true to its title–it's about ways of seeing and not seeing. The book is populated by colorful characters, but it settles upon two major ones: Werner Pfenning, a German orphan boy whose technical brilliance saves him from toiling in the Essen coal mines, but sucks him into the Wermacht; and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French teen.

Werner's facility with radios frees him from an orphanage, a facility from which he hopes also to redeem his younger sister, Jutta. In the Germany of the late 1930s, such hopes mean obedience to the State. Werner observes the cruelty of the Nazi regime, but must remain silent and choose not to see its immoral implications if he hopes to save Jutta. He must also bit his lip during Hitler Youth training in which his best friend, Frederick, is brutalized. What he can see its circuits, schematics, and electrical currents. At his special school he dutifully studies theory and trigonometry, but he's good at triangulating radio signals and uncovering hidden transmitters because he sees in his mind how everything connects. He also envisions enemy antennae before physically observing them.

Marie-Laure–as beautifully realized a character as one can imagine–sees in other ways. He father and caretaker, Daniel, is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum in Paris. He's also a master woodworker who constructs scale models of Marie-Laure's neighborhood that she "reads" through her fingers with the facility with which she reads Braille. Daniel also constructs elaborate wooden puzzles that Marie-Laure must solve and soon she is so good at cracking his mechanical conundrums that her fingers move with the grace of a concert pianist and the speed of a safecracker. When Daniel is entrusted with being one of four couriers for what might be a precious gem or might be one of three fakes designed to lead Nazi looters astray, he and Marie-Laure leave Paris for her Uncle Etienne's home in Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure must learn anew how to negotiate her way through streets–this time the maze-like warren of walled Saint-Malo.

One by one those close to her disappear until she begins to feel her kinship with a creature she "sees" on the beach, a blind snail species whose shell and chamber she knows as well as her own room, her well-fingered copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and her Uncle Etienne's hidden garret chamber with its transmitter. Trips to the Madame Ruelle's bakery to buy "an ordinary loaf" of bread come with coded numbers baked into the loaf. When all other couriers are removed, Saint-Malo's fate depends upon a blind girl wending her way through the city streets. And why not? In her darkness Marie-Laure sees things the sighted can never behold.

Intricate subplots overlay the inner struggles of Werner and Marie-Laure, such as the Inspector Girard-like pursuit of the missing gem by the sadistic Reinhold von Rumpel, Marie-Laure's relationship with her uncle's maternal housekeeper, Werner's moral crises and redemption, and small acts of rebellion by Occupied French women the likes of which seldom make the history books (but should). Doerr also gets an essential fact about war– fairy tale endings are the stuff of bad novels, not actual conflict. The resolution of this novel will both satisfy and leave you shattered; it both soars and scars. If I may, this book makes us see in a different light. –Rob Weir

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