|All the Light We Cannot See
5 / 5
"At dusk they pour from the sky."
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is 12, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
If there ever was something close to the perfectly crafted novel for me, this was it. What an amazing reading experience. Doerr writes beautiful, tender, empathetic prose which unwinds the story with the ideal blend of detail and pacing. I won't soon forget this gem of a book, most particularly for the way it humanized the German side of the war experience as much as the more sympathetic one. I adored the way the two stories unfolded towards one another, like the flattening of Max's paper planes, until their edges just touched.
The rich descriptions of wartime Europe struck me on every page, and I was impressed with how well Doerr wrote the entire experience of Marie-Laure's world from the blind girl's four remaining senses. Every experience of the characters was felt by the reader.
The little touches were what really got to me: Werner's childhood interest in radios (told in truly believable detail), Marie-Laure's passion for sea creatures (based upon reading Jules Verne at an impressionable age), Frederik's obession with birds (to the exclusion of almost all else). The miniature cities which Monsieur Le Blanc builds for his daughter, incorporating clever locking mechanisms from his own talents. The hermit, the orphan sister, the housekeeper, the baker's wife, the giant: all carried so vividly through the page, with their own foibles and cares.
I wondered often why Doerr chose 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as his parallel text, as it were. Is it because the Le Blancs ultimately ended up living on the edge of Atlantic? Is it because echoes of the maniacal Captain Nemo perhaps could be spotted in Hitler? Was it because there was adventure in exploration, and Marie-Laure needed to learn to embrace it rather than fear it? I am still trying to figure that out, but I think the choice was a great one. The snippets of the Verne work scattered throughout the Doerr novel were well-placed and sometimes surprisingly appropriate.
I feel like I can't say it more succinctly or more poetically than this paragraph I stumbled across from Booklist:
"A novel to live in, learn from, and feel bereft over when the last page is turned, Doerr's magnificently drawn story seems at once spacious and tightly composed. . . . Doerr masterfully and knowledgeably re-creates the deprived civilian conditions of war-torn France and the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers." —Brad Hooper,Booklist, April 15, 2014
You may have already heard a lot about this novel; it is certainly getting talked about. And deservedly so. I plan to press this into the hands of everyone I know. Or maybe even those I don't know.
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