There was nothing that I did not simply love about this book: the characters, the non-linearity of the narrative, the various settings, even the encroaching war which hovers, always, intrudes and then retreats only to re-appear like a spectre in the darkness. Mostly, I think, what drew me into this book was its sensoriness – one of the protagonists is a blind girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. She loses her sight slowly, over time and in her blindness, she leads us to appreciate the magnitude of other senses:
“To really touch something, she is learning – the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop – is to love it.”
On this journey with Marie-Laure, we learn that “(t)o shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”
Marie-Laure’s father assumes the role of hero-figure. He constructs a miniature, hand carved replica of the town in which they live so she can learn her way around. Eventually, without realising it, she can navigate her way from her house to the museum, the park and beyond. “Her fingers walk the tightropes of sentences; in her imagination, she walks the decks of the speedy two-funneled frigate called the Abraham Lincoln. She watches New york city recede; the forts of New Jersey salute her departure with cannons; channel markers bob in the swells. A light ship with twin beacons glides past as America recedes; ahead wait the great glittering prairies of the Atlantic.”
“She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets.”
Marie-Laure lives in Paris and far away, in Germany, lives her counterpart, our other protagonist, Werner. Unlike LeBlanc, Werner is an orphan. He lives with the lovely and loving Frau Elena who nurtures him and his sister, Jutta, with an unlikely tenderness. In this environment, Werner grows, becoming adept at mathematics and a range of engineering capabilities:
“He dismantles the machine, stares into its circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.”
For Marie-Laure, the world is reduced to touch and sound. She uses her hands to navigate her way through her physical space, and they always flutter before her. For Werner, it is all about the “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.” He lies at night, hidden from the eyes of the growing Reich, listening to broadcasts from far-away places about science and the world and the way things work. He takes his sister on this journey with him and together they delight in the world that opens for them over the radio-waves.
But, life happens and “(t)he war drops its question mark” for both Marie-Laure and Werner. What unfolds is simply a marvellous tale of two young people whose lives run parallel, intersect only briefly and then diverge. Beneath the story of these amazing personalities are moral questions which Doerr raises in a subversive way. Questions like: “‘Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'” Thus, Werner yearns to belong – “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded. Never has he felt such a hunger to belong.” – but at the same time, he is keenly aware that although “(h)e is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good… every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.”
To tell you more about this book would be to spoil the story so I will leave off here. I will only add that as soon as I read the last line of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, I had this irresistible urge to return to the first page and to revisit the whole book. This rarely happens to me and is a testimony to the power of this tome.