Book review

'All the Light We Cannot See': Senses and sensibility in World War II

In Anthony Doerr's novel, the separate stories of a blind French girl and a German soldier converge dramatically

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By chronicling the lives of a pair of youngsters in Europe, Anthony Doerr has given readers a chilling look at the German occupation of France in World War II.

By Anthony Doerr
Scribner ($27)

His new novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” tells the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier. Their paths do not cross until a crucial point in the final portion of the war.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is on the run with her father because Nazi treasure hunters believe he might be in possession of a precious diamond. Werner Pfennig, a mental whiz with electronics, is a young communications officer in the German army.

Mr. Doerr’s story covers more than 10 years. He begins with a look at Marie-Laure and Werner several years before the war. Cataracts have rendered the young girl blind, and she is beginning to learn to navigate and experience the world through the rest of her senses.

During his early years, Werner begins to realize that his innate knowledge of electronics might be the only ticket out of the mining village where he lives. If not, he is destined to work in the mines like all the other men who live there.

It is the onset of the war that becomes the determining factor in the lives of both Marie-Laure and Werner. Officials at the museum where Marie-Laure’s father works have heard rumors that Nazi treasure hunters will soon come to seize their valuable possessions. Marie-Laure’s father decides to flee Paris, and his employers entrust him with the care of a stone which might be a prize diamond or might be a convincing replica.

From Paris, Marie-Laure and her father go to the seaside village of Saint-Malo. Her father has decided they will be safe staying at the home Etienne LeBlanc, his father’s brother. Etienne, now in his 60s, suffers from a form of PTSD from the First World War. He hasn’t ventured outside the walls of his house for years.

Back in the mining village, Werner and his sister Jutta spend their early years in an orphanage after a mining accident kills their father. When news of Werner’s electronics prowess filters beyond the village, he is asked to take an entrance exam for a boarding school designed to nurture future German soldiers. To no one’s surprise, he passes the exam, then leaves the village and his sister to attend school.

From this part of the story onward, Mr. Doerr presents brief chapters that alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner. Although Werner is now on active duty in the German forces, the war is not only with him — it is everywhere. Across Europe, the war is evident in everything from food shortages to the continual hum of low-flying airplanes.

The French of Saint-Malo are not without their own resources. Throughout the area, members of the Resistance are broadcasting messages through home-operated radios. Although he is still home-bound, Etienne agrees to help the Resistance effort with his own radio.

In the midst of all this, Mr. Doerr ups the ante. First, the Nazis are closing in on the possible location of the stone entrusted to Marie-Laure’s father. Secondly, Werner is assigned to a unit whose mission is to find and eliminate French Resistance members who are broadcasting on the clandestine short-wave radios.

There is a palpable buildup of tension as Werner’s unit enters the outskirts of Saint-Malo, and as Marie-Laure is left to her own devices when Etienne is detained for questioning by the German occupiers. Mr. Doerr doesn’t disappoint the reader in bringing both of the youngsters’ lives to a dramatic counterpoint.

The craftsmanship of Mr. Doerr’s book is rooted in his ability to inhabit the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner. Through Mr. Doerr’s words, it is apparent that Marie-Laure uses every one of her remaining senses to the utmost in absorbing the wonders that exist beyond the world at war. Marie-Laure’s first walk near the Atlantic Ocean upon reaching Saint-Malo is a good example.

“The ocean! Right in front of her. Saint-Malo has opened on to a portal of sound larger than anything she has ever experienced. Larger than the Jardin des Plantes, than the Seine, larger than the grandest galleries of the museum. She did not imagine it properly; she did not comprehend the scale.”

Werner’s education begins with his tour of duty and after he leaves the classroom. The self-righteousness his Nazi instructors inculcated at school erodes each time Werner sees the results of a battle — bodies strewn along the road, buildings destroyed by bombs and flames.

In the century before the two world wars, Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman said: “War is cruelty.” Mr. Doerr has depicted two youngsters who demonstrate this very point throughout the 500-plus pages of his fine novel.

Steve Novak is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.

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