Friday, January 11, 2019

Review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014, 4th Estate)

Marie-Laure became blind at a young age. As war breaks out she flees Paris with her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Their flight takes them to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo in Brittany where they take refuge with a great-uncle and his housekeeper. In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig lives with his younger sister in an orphanage. He is intrigued by radios and science and becomes an expert at building and repairing them. At the start of the war his endeavours secure him a place at an elite Nazi school, where he helps invent a radio direction finding device. As Marie-Laure gets drawn into aiding the resistance and her uncle broadcasts messages, Walter is drafted into the army tracking down enemy transmitters. Their paths seem destined to cross as the war draws to a close.

Set mostly in the lead up to and during the Second World War, All The Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of two children, Marie-Laure Leblanc a blind French girl, and Walter Pfenning a German orphan obsessed with radio. As the war starts, Marie-Laure flees Paris to Saint-Malo, while Walter is escapes work in the local mine to enrol in a military school. As Marie-Laure becomes a courier for the resistance, Walter joins a radio-direction unit tracking down resistance members in Russia, Austria, then France. Doerr tells their two stories through parallel threads, along with a third thread related to a Nazi treasure hunter trying to trace the location of a precious diamond removed from the museum Marie-Laure’s father worked at. The story is not told chronologically but rather jumps back and forth, with the Allied siege of Saint-Malo acting as a fulcrum point. The story is essentially about two good people trying to get by during a war. It is beautifully told, with some evocative prose and enchanting scenes. The first half was a wonderful read. Then the sections became progressively shorter and the timeline more choppy and it loses some of its charm. The denouement is nicely done, avoiding a saccharine conclusion, but rather than finish at the war’s end, it’s natural end point in my view, it stutters to a halt by jumping forward over time. The result was the second half of the story lost some of its compelling nature.

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