This is a beautiful book.
A book to get lost in.
Set during World War II, it jumps between France and Germany. It weaves together two stories. One of Marie-Laure, a girl who goes blind from cataracts at age six; and of Werner, a young German boy living in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta, in a coal mining town. We watch each of the characters grow up in the shadow of war. Marie-Laure learning to navigate a world without sight, and Werner, a prodigy with unlimited promise whose only options are to work in the coal mines to surely die (as his father did), or enlist as a Nazi soldier.
Doerr renders Marie-Laure’s sensory experience lyrically. It is full of swirls and color and smooth edges and light and sounds. She feels her way over the scale model of her neighborhood that her father painstakingly makes to help her memorize every street, building, and wall — an exercise that saves her more than once. Everything she touches, hears, or feels is amplified. Her world is somewhat isolated, yet full of unique perception and wonder.
“It doesn’t hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture . . . Color — that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden.The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.”
By contrast, the things Werner sees once he arrives at the training school for Nazi soldiers snuff out his imagination and character, turning him complicit in horrendous acts towards prisoners, Jews, and even his best friend.
The stories twist together in surprising ways. The book is sad, but tender, and written in short, easily consumed chapters. Marie-Laure’s lack of sight saves her from witnessing the worst horrors of the war; things the other characters will never un-see. Her resourcefulness and courage make her an unexpected heroine and a sweet, almost magical character that I will not forget.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
New York Times write up.
P.S. Thanks, Angie, for this thoughtful birthday gift!