It was selected for The New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2014. It was a National Book Award finalist. Almost 13,000 reviews on Amazon. And it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Usually I see that kind of recognition for a book and expect to be disappointed when I read it. Not this time. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See deserved all of those accolades, and more.
Doerr is the author of a collection of short stories, The Shell Collector (2002); a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the World (2007); and a previous novel, About Grace (2010). I haven’t read them, but I will.
And then there’s All the Light We Cannot See.
I knew from the first few pages I was reading something extraordinary. Short chapters. Narrative written in the present tense, giving an immediacy and almost urgency to the story.
And what a story. Oh, my, what a story.
A blind girl. An orphaned boy. A legendary diamond.
And World War II.
It is 1934. Marie-Laure Leblanc lives with her father Daniel near the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Daniel is a locksmith for the museum. He has also created a wooden model of the neighborhood for his blind daughter to eventually find her way around. Her birthday presents are usually small puzzle boxes with candy inside. As Marie-Laure grows older, her father takes her to work, where she meets the scientists and museum curators, and learns about mollusks. She also receives a Braille edition of part one of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.
Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are raised in an orphanage near Essen, Germany. Werner is small for his age but can do incredible things with his hands, like create radio receivers from scraps of metal and tubing. He builds a radio, and one of the programs he and his sister listen to at night comes from somewhere in France. The programs are about science, and Werner and Jutta become enchanted. It is how he learns French, and the wonder of what he hears will change him forever.
But this is 1930s Europe. The Nazis are consolidating power in Germany and creating the Reich that will last a thousand years. And persecuting Jews and others who don’t belong to the master race. Werner’s technical skills comes to the attention of local Nazi officials, and he eventually finds himself, the boy who builds radios, at an elite Nazi school for training Germany’s youth.
With the fall of France in June 1940, Daniel and Marie-Clare flee westward from Paris, with a place supposedly found for them with one of the museum’s governors. When they arrive, they find the house in flames and being looted by locals. Daniel then takes his daughter to St. Malo in Brittany, where his Uncle Etienne lives. Etienne has not been in his right mind since World War I, and refuses to leave the six-story family townhouse. And then the Germans arrive.
What Daniel tells no one is what he is carrying with him, one of three replicas of a famous diamond in the museum’s collection. Or it may not be a replica. No one knows for sure, including Daniel, and that’s by design. A Nazi official, however, will spend years tracking down the stone and its copies, seeking to claim it for the Reich.
Doerr moves the story back and forth over a ten-year period, 1934 to 1944, underscoring how much the past has to do with the present, and the future. And while the suspense of the story is important, it’s not what the novel is ultimately about. It is about the things that matter, the small and seemingly insignificant things. Wars and thousand-year reichs may swirl around us, but there is still beauty in the natural world and beauty in the relationships we build and sustain. That is what lasts, even after life itself is gone.
All the Light We Cannot See is a marvelous book, a beautiful book. I held back the tears until the very last chapter, and I don’t know whether the tears came because of the story itself or the fact that I had reached the end.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. A book like this never really ends.
Related: You can read an excerpt from the novel, “The Education of Werner Pfennig,” via Doerr’s website.
Illustration: the City of St. Malo in Brittany, from the cover of the novel.