All the Light We Cannot See
We love stories for myriad reasons. Some inspire us with redemption, hope, and wonder, while others crush us under the weight of sorrow, pain, and death. Still others may achieve both. Whether in dust or glory, these incantations sing sweet melodies that persuade us on when deep down we know that death comes swiftly and the scales of justice are not always balanced.
All the Light We Cannot See was penned by Anthony Doerr and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015. In addition to his endearing and inspiring central characters, Doerr’s style and narrative structure immediately drew my interest. Doerr ushers readers on a gracefully circuitous route through the early years of two young children, as well as forward and back in time, permitting brief glimpses into their tumultuous futures. The book opens in August 1944, two months after D-Day, before scaling back to 1934, when his primary characters are small children.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind Parisian girl who lives with her father, a talented locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. We meet Marie as a curious, cautious, freckled six-year-old. She is everything we are and all that we hope to be: fearful yet brave, ordinary yet brilliant, veiled yet full of light and love.
When World War II hits Paris, Marie-Laurie and her father escape to live in the sea-side city of St. Maulo with her great-uncle, Etienne. All the while, Marie is ignorant of her father’s ongoing business with the Museum and the potential danger that follows them.
Meanwhile, seven-year-old Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, live at an orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. They spend most evenings listening to a French professor broadcasting about science, discussing the complex beauty of the world, and restricting the painful reality that Werner is destined for the coal mines in a few short years.
However, at fourteen, Werner’s growing knack for electrical science becomes broadly known and he leaves to train at an elite Nazi school. In a classic game of tug-of-war, Werner’s bent toward kindness and generosity is daily confronted with German propaganda and brutality.
As the years progress forward, Marie-Laure and Werner’s worlds plunge into the chaotic waters of war and we are compelled to ask again and again, how will these two stories intertwine?
The battles between light and darkness, corruption and equity, and life and death pressed hard on my heart. As I journeyed through life with Marie and Werner, I begged Doerr to serve justice, to reward kindness, and to redeem the innocence stolen from these children.
I wouldn’t say that this story serenaded my heart with songs of joy. Instead, it stirred up a sea of questions and forced me to consider a couple sobering realities. Can justice rise from ashes? Will light ever reach the shadows? Must death’s song bind the slumbering forever? Or might they one day wake to hear the saying, which begins,
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”