Written by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of the siege of Saint-Malo, the citadel used by pirates at the farthest edge of north-western France where the sea crashes against its enormous stone battlements. It had survived two thousand years. Yet American military, facing Nazi refusal to surrender their ground advantage, attacked it relentlessly from the air and burned nearly the entire city to the ground before the final rout of Axis power.
The history of Saint-Malo unfolds from the perspective of two teenagers whose trajectory toward each other is so unlikely that even though I knew they would eventually meet, I was startled when they did. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl who lives with her father, a locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History. After the siege of Paris, they flee to presumed safety in Saint-Malo, where they stay at the home of her recluse uncle and his devoted housekeeper. Her father has constructed a small wooden model of the city with such meticulous precision that she can find her way around the real town by walking her fingers through the model. Uncle Etienne, emotionally damaged by the Great War, broadcasts science lessons from his treasured ancient radio to the children of France while hiding on the top floor of the house. On his calmer days, Etienne is able to allow a companionable relationship to develop with his niece.
Werner is a German boy who lives with his beloved sister in an orphanage for children whose fathers died working in the city’s coal mines. The boy’s brilliance with mathematics and mechanics makes him a valuable asset to the Nazis and saves him from being forced into the mines. He is sent to a school where the brightest of young German boys are rigorously trained to be soldiers, inured to sympathy for the enemy and for the weak. Conscripted into the army, he distances himself from the horrors of war by concentrating on the pure science of triangulation algorithms to locate the secret radios the French are using to communicate with the Allies.
Von Rumpel is a German officer as sick in mind as he is in body. Assigned to find and confiscate the great treasures of occupied France for Germany, he is in pursuit of the mythical Sea of Flames, an enormous blue diamond with a fire red center that is said to promise everlasting life. Von Rumpel is convinced the rare gem is hidden in Saint-Malo.
The story is told in short chapters that alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner, and occasionally from the point of view of von Rumple. With a fluid chronology unbound to the calendar, it addresses themes of personal determination versus blind obedience, of courage and redemption. It employs the symbols of blindness (what we choose to see; what we refuse; how visual blindness conveys a comprehensive view), culture (music; Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), communication (mysterious and forbidden radio broadcasts; reading Braille; hidden, coded messages), keys and locks (Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith; keys and locks show up in many places, including the hearts of people), and fire (the flames of rebellious acts against the Nazis, of the red heart of the diamond, and of the burned city.) The most boundless image is of light, what we see, what we imagine, the inner light or darkness of our souls that guide us to our ultimate fate.
I loved the book for many reasons and have read it three times, though the third was not the last. Doerr’s lyrical facility with description and his mastery of relating a complex story engaged me even when reading difficult chapters about reprehensible acts and the consequences of war. He doesn’t romanticize but he does find beauty in unexpected places. Though I knew the outcome of Saint-Malo, I was still surprised by the depth of reflection of Marie-Laure and Werner as they face their circumstances, by details that made vivid every aspect, and by the choices people make under duress.
My favorite line is first spoken through the radio, heard by Werner at Children’s House, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Doer wrote the book in present tense, a format I usually dislike, but he is so accomplished a writer I didn’t even notice until I’d read a significant portion. He spent ten years researching and writing it, which included visiting Saint-Malo and other sites mentioned in the book. His intimate knowledge of the places as well as information about radio transmissions, whelks, birds, German mining towns, the German schools for youth during the war, subversive efforts by common citizens to confound the Nazis, and other subjects make reading the book a revelation on every page. Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as other awards for the book. It is a book that haunts and lifts me, reminding me how to remain human.
Other books that were serious contenders for A:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
All Other Nights by Dara Horn
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
Atonement by Eon McEwan
I look forward to learning about your favorite A fiction books.
Book cover image courtesy Google images and Scribner