(Saint-Malo, Brittany, France where much of the novel takes place)
Among the many wonderful things that a fine novelist can achieve is to create characters whose traits and thoughts embody people like Marie-Laurie Leblanc, the heroine in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. The story involves an intricate plot surrounding Marie-Laurie, a blind girl who by 1940 is thrust into the whirlwind of World War II. Her father is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and as the war unfolds he is given possession of the “sea of flames” diamond, a gem attached to the myth that the person who possesses it cannot die, but also those in close contact with the owner of the gem may suffer greatly, which is sought by a Nazi gemologist, Reinhold von Rumpel. The story that Doerr’s weaves is much more than a search for the missing gem. It is a tale that follows the relationship between Marie-Laure, who loses her sight at the age of six and her father. Their relationship is a tender one as he keeps his daughters spirits high by creating wooden “puzzle boxes” that she must figure out in order to obtain the gift inside. Further, to assist his daughter, the locksmith creates a small wooden replica of her Parisian neighborhood so she can employ her other senses to gain some autonomy. Doerr organizes his novel by taking the reader back and forth in time as the war progresses and he alternates chapters depending on which major character he is presenting. The story revolves around Marie-Laurie and her travails, but other individuals emerge that are central to the book’s theme. Werner Pfenning, a fourteen year old orphan who is an electronics whiz finds himself in an elite Nazi school and then is attached to the German army to try and locate “partisan” communications throughout Europe. Another strand revolves around Marie-Laurie’s great uncle, Etienne, a man who seems to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome because of his experiences in World War I. Once Marie-Laurie’s father is seized by the Nazis, she lives with her Uncle Etienne in Saint Malo, a small village in Brittany that is controlled by the Germans.
Doerr weaves a fascinating story as he intertwines the lives of his characters. Werner, the electronics expert hears transmissions with his sister Jutta while living in an orphanage, Etienne is the source of the transmissions, and later the two will come across each other as Etienne transmits for the French resistance during the war, while Werner seeks to find him. The fluidity and care that Doerr crafts each sentence enhances the readers’ experience as the story unfolds through constant time changes. Each character has its own development. Through Werner’s experience Doerr takes us on a journey were a young man has his sense of decency tested by the school commander’s destruction of his friend Frederick, and then he must survive as a boy among men in the German army as he witnesses the hunt for and death of partisans who fight against the Nazis. Uncle Etienne suffers from extreme PTSD symptoms dating back to World War I where he survived and his brother did not. He locks himself away in his room repeatedly and hears voices. Finally with the death of his housekeeper and the Nazi seizure of Marie-Laurie’s father he is presented with two life altering opportunities. First, he must care for his niece. Second, he employs his radio transmitter as “the nexus of a web of information” by transmitting codes to partisans to prepare attacks against the Nazis. As Doerr describes Etienne; “when he’s opening the tiny scroll in his fingers, (containing the necessary codes) lowering his mouth to the microphone, he feels unshakeable; he feels alive.” (331) Etienne is seen by others as having mental problems, but as R.D. Liang and Thomas Szaz have hypothesized, people who supposedly suffer from mental illness are really using it as a mechanism to cope with an insane world, which World War I and II certainly are.
There are a number of strands that Doerr seamlessly weaves together. Marie-Laurie who unbeknownst to her is in possession the of “sea of flames” diamond hidden in one of her father’s miniature houses. Werner who seeks a decent world that does not exist. Etienne who discovers a purpose for his existence, and finally, von Rumple who searches for the gem that will save his life. All of these characters come together in Saint-Malo, a village under German occupation that slowly becomes like the model that Marie-Laurie’s father has created, as Doerr describes Marie-Laurie’s fears as the “streets [are] sucked empty one by one. Each time she steps outside, she becomes aware of all the windows above her. The quiet is fretful, unnatural. It’s what a mouse must feel, she thinks, as it steps from its hole into the open blades of a meadow, never knowing what shadow might be cruising above.” (274)
The German occupation, allied bombing, day to day starvation and murder are all apparent as the savagery of war is presented through the lives of Doerr’s characters that are haunted by what they experience. It is a master craftsman that Doerr certainly is as a writer as he juxtaposes the book; TWENTY LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne, that Marie-Laurie’s father gave her in Braille as a child with his own story. The narrative that Verne created is intertwined with the novel and its use by the author in providing another prism of understanding of the events and emotions that are on display throughout the narrative is remarkable.
Of all the characters in the book I find Etienne one of the most important, if not interesting, as he carries around the baggage of World War I’s devastation each day and is able to finally leave his home at 4 Rue Vauborel after twenty-four years of self-exile to care for his niece and at the same time deal with the demons that have haunted him. Throughout the book the theme of “what the war did to dreamers” dominates. (506) the reader will feel it on every page as each character tries to overcome the obstacles they are confronted with. The book concludes with a few chapters bringing the story to the present and trying to bring cloture for the lives the reader has spent hours with. What Doerr has done is create a gift that all who indulge it will certainly reap many rewards.