Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

TL:DR – The story of a young girl over a ten year span who has to learn how to live with blindness during World War II.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

In August 1944, the French coastal town of Saint-Malo was occupied by Germany. Allied forces sent bombers as part of an offensive to capture the town. A quarter-mile offshore, Fort National holds several hundred prisoners who spy the bombers’ approach including Marie-Laure Leblanc’s uncle who thinks:

Locusts, and an Old Testament proverb comes back to him from some cobwebbed hour of parish school. The locusts have no king, yet all of them go out in ranks.

In Saint-Malo, on the sixth floor of number 4 rue Vauborel, sixteen year old, blind girl, Marie-Laure is in her bedroom with a replica model of Saint-Malo in her hands. The replica is so precise that Marie-Laure can run her fingers over the model town and find number 4 rue Vauborel. She pushes the miniature front door and discovers the model house is a puzzle box. Puzzle boxes were made by her locksmith father who often gave them to her as gifts and a guide to help navigate the town she lives in. She turns the chimney ninety degrees and removes three panels of the roof before turning it upside. A cold, teardrop shaped stone, the size of a pigeon’s egg falls into her palm. A stone she cannot see.

She clutches the model house and gemstone to her as the house shakes from the incoming bombers. Sirens wail outside telling everyone to find shelter. Marie-Laure crawls beneath her bed wishing for her father.

This is her story.

Review

As a species, we are a weird bunch. We should love and respect one another, yet we fight and unleash wars, and we know this inherently. We should treasure each other, yet we treasure inanimate objects, and we know this inherently. We should learn from our mistakes, but we often repeat them, and we know this inherently. (Is it a mistake that I repeated ‘we know this inherently’ three times? No, that’s an epistrophe, and I admit is annoying unless they’re the lyrics of a song).

This dichotomy between what we know and what we end up doing drives home a message around humanity in All The Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s epic tale of historical fiction is not so much a cautionary one as it is a blatant message that there is an essential need that we, as a species, do not lose our own empathy toward each other lest we lose our humanity.

This got me thinking about museums. Our fascination for recording history, learning about the past, and using it to inform the future is a noble enterprise, and museums are a wonderful testimony to past achievements and allows exploration of new ideas by examining the old.

Museums also, I believe unintentionally, place focus on treasuring and valuing inanimate objects rather than people. Do we love Van Gogh the person? Or do we love Van Gogh’s art?

One of the key motifs in All The Light We Cannot See revolves around a museum treasure. And it demonstrates that even in the midst of World War II (or perhaps because of a world war), people lose sight of what is important and the thread of empathy towards each other is cut.

This museum treasure is housed initially in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and is called the ‘Sea of Flames’; a teardrop blue diamond with a touch of red in its centre like a flame. The stone is said to be cursed, and the story goes roughly like this:

The Sea of Flames was created by the Goddess of the Earth as a gift to her lover, the God of the Sea. She sent the jewel to him through the river, but the river dried up. It was found by a sultan’s prince. The Goddess, enraged, cursed the stone. The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as they kept it, bad things would happen. And indeed the prince, along with subsequent individuals who possessed the stone, suffered tragic deaths of those they loved and cared about and misfortune fell upon them. Like I said, Doerr’s message is clear rather than cautionary; don’t place more value on objects than people.

It goes on to say that the curse can be broken if the keeper throws the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient.

The legend behind the Sea of Flames is told to a bunch of children visiting the Paris museum. One of these children is a six-year old Marie-Laure. Thus we see this event happens ten years before the opening chapters of the bombing of Saint-Malo. The tour guide who tells the story informs the children the Sea of Flames is now housed in this museum behind thirteen locked doors inside a vault not to be opened for two hundred years.

One of the children asks the guide, how long has it been since it was locked away. And the tour guide answers that 196 years have passed. If you work out the maths, Doerr has cleverly made it so that when the vault is finally opened in four more years, World War II will commence with Germany invading Poland. Could the outbreak of a world war have been triggered when a vault containing a diamond treasure was opened releasing a pent up 200-year curse?

The answer is it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a six-year old Marie-Laure asks the guide, “Why not just take the diamond and throw it into the sea?”

Her fellow peers scoff at her; who throws a diamond that could buy five Eiffel Towers into the sea? They have all (except Marie-Laure) already been convinced in treasuring and valuing an inanimate object. At the end of the tour, Marie-Laure is reunited with her father who happens to be the head locksmith at the museum. And one month later, Marie-Laure goes blind.

The other main protagonist in this story is a German boy named Werner Pfennig. He’s a gifted child plucked from an orphanage for his skills in fixing radios and ends up being indoctrinated with Nazi values and is placed in the army corps. His role is to use radio technology to track illegal enemy signals. However, he becomes disillusioned when not only Allied soldiers but also innocent civilians are killed.

As the story unfolds, we get to see how Marie-Laure learns to live during a time of war without her sight, and how Werner’s brutal training does not undermine his core empathy. It is majestically done by Doerr, and you have to be willing to absorb his prose because All The Light We Cannot See is a tome of a novel and a lengthy read. But I found every moment spent poring over each page a worthy investment.

By the end, when everything comes full circle, and the Allied forces invade Saint-Malo, I was riveted to see what would happen to Marie-Laure and Werner. Doerr’s ability to capture not only the historical places in his story but how Marie-Laure navigates her life during a time of strife completely blind is both ambitious and mind blowing.

When Marie-Laure discovers the stone hidden in the model replica of Saint-Malo given to her by her father who was entrusted with the stone by the museum when the Germans invaded Paris, she fulfils the question she asked ten years prior and releases the stone (and all the light she cannot see in the diamond) back into the ocean.

The fact that the Sea of Flames finally reaches its intended destination, and this coincides with the Axis collapse and the Allied victory shortly thereafter is not coincidence on Doerr’s part. The curse has been lifted.

5 out of 5

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