In 1934, six-year -old Marie-Laure’s eyesight fails due to congenital cataracts and she becomes completely blind. At the time she is living in Paris with her father, who is the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. (“Between the laboratories, warehouses, four separate public museums, the menagerie, the greenhouses, the acres of medicinal and decorative gardens in the Jardin des Plantes, and a dozen gates and pavilions, her father estimates there are twelve thousand locks in the entire museum complex. No one else knows enough to disagree.”) Her mother is gone, having died in childbirth. Still, Marie-Laure is a smart, inquisitive girl, and spends all day at the museum with her father where she accompanies him on his rounds, or perhaps spends the afternoon in one of the laboratories where her quick fingers still learn of the mysteries of the world. Except Tuesdays, when the museum is closed. On those days she and her father sleep in, then drink coffee “thick with sugar” and roam the streets of Paris.
In 1934, Werner Pfennig lives with his little sister Jutta in a small orphanage in Zollverein, a four-thousand acre coal mining complex outside Essen, Germany. He is seven, and small for his age, with ears that stick out and hair so fair it is like the absence of color. He is inquisitive, guileless (even though there is no money, he can sometimes coax bread out of the baker), and is good at making things with his hands such as crude biplanes and toy boats with working rudders. He is full of questions for Frau Elena, the kind-hearted Alsatian nun who runs the orphanage, who sings French folk songs to her wards and is “more fond of children than of supervision.” Life is hard at the orphanage – it is chaotic at times and colds and more serious illnesses run rampant, and there is never enough to eat, but Frau Elena still encourages Werner, telling him to dream big, that he is destined for great things. But everyone knows that boys from the orphanage only have one option when they turn fifteen – they will end up in the mines. The same mines that killed Werner’s father.
All the Light We Cannot See chronicles the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner from 1934 through August 1944, when the effects of the war force their paths to cross. Marie-Laure evacuates with her father from the bombing of Paris to live with an uncle in Saint-Malo, harboring a valuable secret of which she is unaware. Werner, like so many boys in Hitler’s Germany, is caught up in the tides of war. We see both these children, so bright, so full of promise, doing their best to make their way in a world that promises so much and delivers so little.
The book is written in bits and snippets, alternating from each child’s point of view (mostly – sometimes a secondary character will be the POV of a few pages). The book actually starts off in 1944, and then jumps back in time to 1934, progressing from that seminal year to fill in the gap between what was and what “is”. But time in the book is not static, the past continues to be punctuated with glimpses of the “present” (1944); we are not allowed to forget where this all is leading.
Sections are rarely more than a few pages long; many are less than a page, often painting a picture as much as telling a story. When the children are still young, even in the most gaunt of circumstances there is a sense that the world still holds the potential for great beauty, that there are mysteries that each can only hope to explore some day.
Each child has some form of support that allows them to look beyond their closed experiences. For Marie-Laure, it is her father, who spends countless hours carving scale models – first of Paris, then of Saint-Malo – that meticulously recreates the physical world in which his daughter must move. She learns the streets outside her front door, can determine how many park benches, how many door moldings and storm drains will take her to the bakery or the park. She never roams alone, but this valuable knowledge gives her a sense of confidence, allows her to lead instead of mindlessly follow. She is secure in the knowledge that even though the world outside may be dark, she has the devotion of her father and faith in her own abilities to keep her safe.
Werner has the encouragement of Frau Elena and the love of his little sister to bolster his boundless curiosity. When he is eight he finds a broken radio and brings it back to the orphanage. After studying it for hours, he finds what seems to be the problem then puts it back together again. It works, and a new world opens to him and the other children – beautiful music, newscasts, plays. He continues to study the radio, scouring Essen’s trash heaps for scraps that will extend the reach of the small machine; at nights, the children sit in a circle listening to the magic it adds to their meager lives. Eventually word gets out that Werner has a gift for working with radios, and others in town bring him their broken machines, so many radios both big and small. Werner studies them, learns them, and fixes them. He begins to believe that this talent may be a way to keep him from ending up in the mines.
But the war -oh, the war. First just rumblings, then strident voices, then lives upturned and a tide of violence that cannot be stemmed. Even children such as Marie-Laure and Werner can only be protected so far, before the realities of war to sweep them along. War is hard enough to fathom when one can comprehend ambitious politics and national ideologies, but when war is seen through the eyes of children, it becomes even more devastating.
Much is made of the title of this book, wondering about the meaning behind All The Light We Cannot See. Author Anthony Doerr explains: “It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.”
The story of Marie-Laure and Werner is a delicate, intricate tale that deserves to be experienced along with the machinery and the theater of war. For every stirring speech, for every patriotic hymn, for every bracing call to defend country and home, there are youngsters like Marie-Laure and Werner who pay the price for such pontifications. All the Light We Cannot See forces us to confront their often neglected spectrums of possibility, as colorless as they may seem, and though it, we learn. This is a story that should not be missed.