All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

Once in a while, you come across a story that is extremely simple on the surface, but as you read it and finish it, it keeps tugging at your memory with its subtle layers. Then you pick it up and read it again, and slowly the layers all become visible simultaneously and you see it in its entirety, and all you can do then is marvel at its beauty while trying not to get swept away. All the Light We Cannot See is one such story.

Doerr’s writing style can be a little jarring at first; in every section he starts with the present, then crash cuts to the past that splits into three different stories for the three primary characters. Three lives, poles apart, that wouldn’t have even been aware of each other’s existence if it hadn’t been for the times they live in. He then slowly weaves those three threads into one magnificent tapestry whose centerpiece is the intrinsic empathy one human being can have for another, regardless of who they are.

The present is August 1944, in the French coastal city of Saint-Malo. The Allied invasion of Europe is two months old and gathering steam. Saint-Malo is a German garrison town getting ready for the final battle and the civilians are being advised to leave the cramped city for their safety. Marie-Laure is a blind sixteen-year-old living with her great-uncle who decides to take shelter from the bombing in her house’s cellar instead. At the same time, eighteen-year-old Werner who is part of a German radio intercept team gets trapped in the basement of a hotel that gets demolished in the bombing. Both, waiting out the bombing or waiting to be rescued, embark on a journey to the past that Doerr pilots and takes us with them.

Saint-Malo, Present Day

We go ten years back to 1934, where a six-year-old Marie-Laure still has her sight, lives with her father in Paris, and her earliest memory is of a tour in the National Museum of Natural History where her father works as the principal locksmith. She recalls the story told of the Museum’s most prized possession, a 130-carat diamond known as the Sea of Fire, and the myth surrounding it, “whoever holds the stone will never die, but as long as they kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those they loved one after another in unending rain”. A couple months after, she loses her vision to congenital cataracts. Her father, using his considerable craftsmanship, creates a scale model of the neighbourhood they stay in that he encourages her to feel with her fingers and use it to guide her in the real world. She continues accompanying her father to the Museum, where despite her blindness she loves reading Jules Verne in Braille and spending time in the company of the Museum’s mollusk expert and learning about them.

During the same time, eight-year-old Werner is growing up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a coal mining town in Germany. He is full of questions and has an innate curiosity about the world around him that makes him a tinkerer, always on the lookout for something to explore or build. He discovers an entire world beyond his town when he comes across discarded pieces of a radio that he reconstructs, and that further fuels his hunger for knowledge. This hunger gets sated somewhat when he stumbles upon a radio broadcast in French, talking about scientific facts and addressed to children; where it originates from he doesn’t know. But living at a time when the Nazi Party is ascendant, he instinctively knows he has to hide the fact that he listens to it.

As the 1930s are drawing to a close, talks of war are becoming more and more commonplace in Paris. Even sightless Marie-Laure cannot escape from the rumours and half-truths she keeps hearing around the museum. But every time she questions her father, he makes light of the situation so as not to scare her. Eventually, though, the war enters their life as part of her father’s profession; the Museum, in a bid to protect the Sea of Fire from the invading Germans, creates three near perfect copies of the stone and selects four of its employees to carry it to four different locations, her father being one of them. None of the four know who has the original, but all are instructed to behave at all times as though they do. Marie-Laure and her father become one of the many refugees fleeing Paris ahead of the Germans, to a place where they will deposit the stone safely.

Werner meanwhile, has becomes known in his town as the boy who can repair anything electronic. This brings him to the notice of the Nazi Party, and he is selected to appear for the entrance exams of the elite National Political Institute of Education. He clears the examinations and is invited to attend, but is conflicted over formally learning electronics while becoming one of “them” or staying back and becoming just another miner. His desire to learn overcomes his moral scruples, but over the course of his studies, time and again Werner’s conscience is shown at loggerheads with the methods and attitudes of those around him, and even more so when he sees firsthand the brutal retribution against a classmate who refuses to conform.

National Socialism: National Political Institutes of Education (Napola – Nationalpolitische Lehranstalt). – Napola in Schulpforta near Naumburg (Saale): students in the gliding school.- Photo, 1941.

Werner silences his turmoil; at first because he doesn’t want to be singled out, and later because his dream of working on something larger and more unique than he has ever done gets realized. His skill with electronics gets him selected to work with on the technical sciences professor’s pet project – the creation of radio directional finders. Working every night on this project, in his own world of mathematics and physics, Werner manages to keep himself away from the grim reality of the rest of the school. After some years, he is instrumental in the creation of a working prototype of an RDF, but is rewarded with being conscripted and sent to the Eastern Front for having expressed a desire to leave and go home. There, he is to work with his own RDFs to locate and eliminate partisan radio teams.

At this juncture, the third primary is introduced – Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a gemologist who works for the Nazi Party. He is part of the team of experts used by the Nazis for the identification, authentication and confiscation of all works of art that catch their fancy, including fabled precious stones (although a separate topic by itself, the Nazis were responsible for the theft of billions of dollars’ worth of artwork and jewels from the Occupied Countries, around 20% of the art in Europe). Von Rumpel is tasked with finding the Sea of Flames, hidden so cleverly by the Paris Museum.

When the Museum’s contact isn’t where he is supposed to be, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to detour to Saint-Malo where her father’s uncle Etienne stays. He is known in the town as someone who hasn’t been ‘right in the head’ after the Great War; what we would today diagnose as PTSD. He lives the life of an eccentric recluse in Saint-Malo, with his housekeeper of many years, Mme. Manec being the only one to have any contact with him. As they settle in in the house, Marie-Laure slowly gets acquainted with her great-uncle’s history and reasons for staying by himself. Not quite the madman he’s made out to be, Etienne and Marie-Laure get along well with each other when they recognize each other’s passion for books and learning. He even trusts her enough to show her a radio transmitter he has constructed himself years ago, which he used in the 30s to transmit recorded scientific programs for children; he is Werner’s mystery broadcaster.

Soon after they reach Saint-Malo, her father starts work on a scale model of the town; ostentatiously for Marie-Laure to familiarize herself with the surroundings before heading out, but also to create a hiding place for the stone he carries with him. He gets observed while taking measurements of the city walls by a French collaborator, and is arrested on suspicion of being part of the resistance. His loss hits Marie-Laure hard, and after days of being swamped by grief, the only thing that brings her out of it is when Mme. Manec starts taking her to the beach during their daily rounds. Being surrounded by the sea and a wide variety of her favourite mollusks gives her the peace she needs to begin living again.

While taking care of the house, Mme. Manec also starts organizing small insurrections against the Germans, ultimately becoming a full member of the French Resistance (contrary to latter day jokes on the lack of French fighting spirit, they had one of the largest resistance armies during WW2 which comprised of men and women from all walks of life). Marie-Laure becomes a willing partner to this, but despite her efforts to recruit Etienne, whose hidden radio could be an immense asset to the Resistance, he shies away from any underground activities. He does come around, but only after Mme. Manec passes away following a long period of illness. Her death galvanizes him into action, and he starts using the hidden radio to transmit secret messages for the Resistance. He is also careful enough to build a secret entrance to the radio room, so that there are no traces beyond the ordinary if their house is searched.

By Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16065058

All this time, Von Rumpel the gemologist is methodically making his way through France, searching for and finding three of the four Sea of Flames, which he dismisses as the very clever fakes. This leaves only the one in Marie-Laure’s possession, but it isn’t until late in the war that he manages to find out where she and her father are. Once he knows, he makes his way to Saint-Malo with all haste because the search has now become personal for him – he has been diagnosed with a tumor that will kill him soon, and his fevered mind desperately wants the stone’s myth to be true, no matter the cost.

Werner too, is making his way to Saint-Malo. Etienne’s radio transmissions have been noticed by the commander of the garrison, and he requests an RDF team to locate the source. Werner’s skill and experience with the equipment sees him and his team being transferred from the Eastern Front for this task. In fact, so skilled is he that he locates Etienne’s transmitter within days of reaching Saint-Malo, but a ghost from the past makes him refrain from reporting it – Etienne’s habit of playing the scientific records after every broadcast. He recognizes them from his childhood, and with them come back all the memories, questions and doubts he had managed to keep suppressed till then. Having seen the savagery of the Germans on the Eastern Front, he for once decides to listen to his inner voice, and resolves to hide the knowledge of Etienne’s house for as long as he can.

The journey to the past merges with the present, as the trapped Werner tries to repair the damaged radio to reach out for rescue. At the same time, von Rumpel takes advantage of the bombing to force his way into Etienne’s house and search for the stone, causing Marie-Laure to take refuge in the hidden radio room. For three days, Werner tries to make the radio work while von Rumpel ransacks the house in his quest while Marie-Laure hides next to the transmitter with barely any food and water. After three days of being driven to the brink by the hunger, thirst and the constant danger of the lurking von Rumpel, Marie-Laure throws caution to the winds and starts the transmitter, playing the scientific records while calling out for help in intervals.

Werner has by then repaired his radio, and searching for someone to contact he stumbles upon Marie-Laure’s broadcast. The records and the raw fear in her voice bring back all his earlier inner monologues about right and wrong, and make him want to do something for once purely because it is the right thing to do. He sets about trying to get out with renewed vigour, literally blasting his way out of the rubble. Once out, he heads immediately to the house, having already located the source of the transmissions, just in time to stop von Rumpel from burning it down and rescue Marie-Laure. The brief interlude they have here is the only interaction they have, and his last act is to lead her out of the city, to where she can be with the rest of the citizens in relative safety. It is the last time they are together in person; Werner gets captured soon after and dies after accidentally stepping on a German land mine.

They do meet again in the future though, when Marie-Laure is in her forties. Werner’s sister Jutta has received his effects after all these years, among which is a model wooden house. Her search for its owner leads her to Marie-Laure, who as she holds it in her hand again, briefly flies back to her past, reliving those few days of terror followed by the safety afforded by Werner. The meeting enables both Jutta and Marie-Laure to have a closure on their experiences in the war, and the book ends with the final fate of the Sea of Flames, thrown away into the sea by the fleeing Marie-Laure.

All through the book, Doerr keeps reminding us that every act of kindness is a conscious choice, a choice every person makes every single time they are confronted with it. And every time the person has to live with the consequences of their choice, for better or for worse. But more importantly, he also tells us that every instance of choosing is also an instance of redemption, should we choose it as such.

2 thoughts on “All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

  1. I realized that I prefer reading books which focus on few characters and etch them in great details.
    Was it a redemption arc given to Werner towards the end or perhaps he didn’t need one as he knew all along who he worked for and did what was required the most when needed.

    Does the book explain if the myth surrounding sea of flames was real?

    Intrigued by Marie Laurie. Wonder how the story would’ve played out if she were the narrator.
    Her relationship with her Father made me relate to a grown up version of the movie Life is Beautiful 🙂
    Revelling in what you’ve showcased, so still short of words . Loved your review❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the best stories I know are extremely simple, Deepti, and that gives them all the more depth.

      It’s not so much a redemption arc as it is him just deciding to accept who and what he is, and behave accordingly.

      And if you’re curious about the myth of the Sea of Flames, I suggest reading the book in its entirety. You can share your perspective on the whole story then. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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