“All the Light We Cannot See”
by Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 531 pp., $27
At the end of his stupendous new novel, Anthony Doerr imagines the atmosphere over contemporary Paris crisscrossed by electromagnetic waves, “torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs … flashing into space and back to Earth again.” An airborne flood charged with our meanings is the perfect final image for a novel in which radio figures so critically.
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But Doerr, characteristically, probes further. With a deft twist of the lens, he shifts the focus from physics to transcendence: “Is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? … That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?”
This uncanny fusing of science and spirit is pure Doerr — familiar from radiant tales like “The Caretaker” in his first short-story collection, “The Shell Collector,” and “Memory Wall,” the title story of his second. But in “All the Light We Cannot See,” published 10 years after his first novel, “About Grace,” Doerr takes his familiar gifts to a higher plane and a wider field.
A second novel is always tough, and Doerr notched up the degree of difficulty by choosing the Second World War as his setting and a young Nazi recruit as one of his two protagonists. How to say something new about a conflict that has been done to death? How to make a sympathetic hero out of a scrawny towheaded kid whose dream is to attend an elite Nazi military school?
Doerr has found a way. By focusing on radio technology and the looting of precious stones, he enters the war through two quirky channels. And his hero, Werner Pfennig, is an inspired creation — a smart, sweet, undersized orphan faced with an impossible choice: Either submit to a nasty short life in the coal mines that killed his father or use his daring and brains to win a place at Schulpforta, the Nazi boarding school for “the best boys in Germany.”
“His soul glowed with some fundamental kindness,” Doerr writes of Werner — and yet at Schulpforta the teenager is suborned by the opposite. Because of his sixth sense for radio technology, Werner is recruited to work on an experimental transceiver that the Wehrmacht will find useful in ferreting out partisans in the coming war.
When his school friend Frederick is beaten to an inch of his life, Werner forces himself to stand silently watching, choosing survival over humanity. To my mind, the scenes of the best boys being transformed into the worst men at Schulpforta are the most powerful in the book.
Running on a parallel track is the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the delicate blind daughter of the head locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Marie-Laure, a budding naturalist, grows up reading Jules Verne in Braille and examining (through her fingertips) the museum’s vast collections of shells.
When the Nazis seize Paris, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to take shelter with a relative. Marie-Laure does not know that her father carries with him the Sea of Flames, the largest diamond ever faceted and the bearer of a legendary curse.
It’s foregone that radio transmissions will bring Werner and Marie-Laure together and that something rich and strange will happen to the priceless gem.
In the end, I found the characters a bit too frail to sustain a plot that wobbles from fairy tale to gritty, rubble-strewn realism. Still, I was despondent when I turned the last page. “All the Light We Cannot See” is a beautiful, daring, heartbreaking, oddly joyous novel, and I fervently hope I don’t have to wait a decade for Doerr to produce another.
Seattle writer David Laskin is the author of “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking).