107 pages • 3 hours readAnthony Doerr
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A sprawling historical novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, explores the overarching theme of lost and redeemed humanity during the waning days of World War II. Told in chapters that alternate between the lives of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, each section, or group of chapters, also alternates between these characters’ past lives and the unfolding siege of Saint-Malo by Allied forces in August 1944.
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Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, the beloved daughter of Daniel LeBlanc, master locksmith of the National Natural History Museum. Blind from the age of 6, Marie-Laure learns to navigate her world through the patience and persistent guidance of her father. He builds a scale model replica of her neighborhood so that she can learn her way around, independently. He also gives her Braille books, opening her mind and imagination to a world beyond her own.
Werner grows up in a protestant orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta. Extremely intelligent, Werner builds his own radio, which picks up far away broadcasts from cities around the world. These broadcasts, particularly a scientific program for children given by a Frenchman, give him and Jutta hope for a better life. His is life marked by poverty and a fear of ending up in the mines like his dead father, so Werner seizes an opportunity to escape the mines through admission to a Reich-sponsored school. Though he gets the education of his dreams in some ways, the price he pays for it is his humanity.
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Werner and Marie-Laure each face considerable hardships while growing up: Werner confronts poverty without the help of his parents; Marie-Laure confronts the loss of her mother at her birth and must learn to deal with her blindness. However, their challenging histories also reveal their strengths: Werner’s intelligence and creativity; Marie-Laure’s imagination and love of the natural world.
The novel’s different sections converge upon their meeting, which forms an extended climax within the novel. While the novel is not a traditional love story, Werner, nevertheless, falls in love with Marie-Laure, when he sees her walk down the street in Saint-Malo. Werner rescues Marie-Laure from death and helps her escape the city, which is still under siege, redeeming himself through this act of courage in defiance of his so-called duty to the Reich.
The story continues beyond the end of the war, detailing the consequences of Werner’s act of humanity, and revealing Marie-Laure’s survival. Through Jutta’s son, Max, the reader also sees the survival of Werner’s bright curiosity, no longer overshadowed by poverty or history. At the end of the novel, the reader comes away with a sense of the power of light against darkness and the human spirit’s dedication to preserving its own humanity, even under desperate circumstances.
By Anthony Doerr