Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it’s no surprise Anthony Doerr’s latest tome is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. A masterpiece rich in story, structure and theme, All the Light We Cannot See centers on Marie-Laure, a sightless young French girl, and Werner, a young German orphan whose expertise in radio technology makes him a valuable asset to the Third Reich. Set during WWII in Paris, St. Malo and various points along the German front, we first meet Marie-Laure and Werner as young children in their respective homes of Paris and Zollverein, a small but vital coal-mining town in western Germany. Written in the present tense, unusual for a story set in the distant past, Doerr’s appealingly short chapters alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner’s points of view. Beginning in 1944 Paris, motherless Marie-Laure accompanies her father to work each day, meticulously learning to navigate the streets between their rooftop apartment in the 5th arrondissement and the Jardin des Plantes, where he is a master locksmith.
As readers quickly learn, however, All the Light We Cannot See is more than the interweaving of Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s wartime lives. It is also a novel rich in imagery and musings about light, sight and the irony of the brain existing in absolute darkness while at the same time allowing us to perceive ‘all the light’ of the objective world. Marie’s blindness and reliance upon other senses—smell, touch, hearing, etc.—are deftly rendered as is Werner and Marie-Laure’s inevitable intersection by way of her grandfather’s radio broadcasts–broadcasts remembers listening to as a young boy. Eventually used to help Allied troops, the radio is a good example of how every image, every plot point, every detail in the novel carries weight.
There’s also the story of the Sea of Flame, a rare diamond that bears an onerous warning–that it will protect its owner from misfortune and death, but is a virtual a death- sentence to those surrounding him. Another irony in a story rich in irony, this plot device serves as both a metaphor for much that happens in the novel as well as a further point of intersection between Marie- Lauren Werner. A beautifully-crafted novel with an interesting, important theme, Doerr’s attention to detail—significant, pervasive detail—is one of the things that makes this piece of historical fiction not only a compelling read but also a work of art.