I’ve been laid low over the past 24 hours with some sort of “flu like illness” (Official Diagnosis), which I think was my body’s way of saying I needed to lie in bed for half the day and all night so I could finish this book. 🙂
You know I’ve been bowled over by a book when I resort to borrowing someone else’s summary of it. This, from the author’s website:
Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a rich, complex story. It shifts backwards and forwards in time, and the narrative juggles back and forth among a few characters. I’m always drawn in by World War II stories, but this one has a particular luminosity about it that grabbed me by the heart and didn’t let me go throughout its 500+ pages. This luminosity comes about through the gorgeous prose and the beautiful characterization. Threads of love and kindness and hope run through this story set in a nightmarishly bleak setting. There are very few, if any, wasted words in this story; each description, each conversation is important and should be noticed. The simple fact that one of the main characters of this story is blind makes the sensory details in it all the more powerful.
Well. This is a book best experienced, I think. I’ll just end with a few quotes that showcase what makes this book wonderful:
This from a description of Paris before the invasion:
From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. Adn yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point. (70)
As an employee of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father has been given what might be a decoy diamond from the collection to transport out of Paris so it won’t be absconded by the Nazis. However, he doesn’t know: it could be the real thing.
He scans the field. Trees, sky, hay. Darkness falling like velvet. Already a few pale stars. Marie-Laure breathes the measured breath of sleep. Everyone should behave as if he carries the real thing. The locksmith reties the stone inside the bag and slips it back into his rucksack. He can feel its tiny weight there, as though he has slipped it inside his own mind: a knot. (90).
Marie-Laure and her father finally arrive in Saint Malo after days of chaotic travel across France with its attendant privations:
Eggs crack. Butter pops in a hot pan. Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, fearful crowds, omitting the stop in Evreaux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.
An omelet arrives. She positions her face over its steam. “May I please have a fork?”
The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately. In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.
The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.
A second omelet soon appears. Now it is her father who eats quickly. “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight. (121)
The author explains how he came to write the story. Fascinating.
Highly, Highly Recommended. (Scribner, 2014)