“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Maybe about halfway through Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” I closed my book and tried to decide what to do: Should I finish the book now? Or should I wait a little longer, to stretch out the experience of reading this book for as long as I can? I’m not a patient person, so I opened my book back up and stayed there all through the night. I can’t remember the last time I read something so beautifully written.
The book follows two children as they grow up during World War II. Neither are the typical “victims” that show up in novels about this war. There’s no concentration camps, no kids evacuated to the countryside. That kind of horror is left on the periphery of the story. Instead they’re just two kids, trying to do the best they can.
One of the kids is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind daughter of a Parisian locksmith. Thanks in part to her extraordinary father, she doesn’t sink into depression when she suddenly loses her sight. Instead, her father spends hours meticulously crafting a miniature version of Paris so she can “learn” the city with her hands and navigate more independently. He creates puzzles for her to solve on her birthday, and buys her books written in Braille that he can’t afford.
When the Nazis invade in 1940, Marie and her father flee to her great uncle’s home in the country. Eventually Marie and her father are separated, but thanks to the self-reliance he taught her, she throws herself into resisting the Nazis any way she can. She purchases local “ordinary” loaves of bread, with secret transmissions cooked in the middle for her great uncle to transmit on his illegal radio.
The other kid is Werner Pfennig, a very Aryan-looking orphan in a German coal-mining town. At a young age, he comes across a broken radio. To his surprise, he finds that fixing it is easy to him, and he and his sister spend late nights secretly listening a a French voice talking about science. The first night they listen he asks:
“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
Werner’s technical gifts earn him a place in the hellish Nazi school, the National Political Institute of Education, where he learns to locate the source of radio transmissions. At just 16, he’s drafted into the German Army with the task of rooting out illegal broadcasts. He’s good at it-very good. But as time goes on, he gets more and more sickened by the job he’s expected to do.
I won’t say anymore about the plot, except that I was enthralled the whole time. Even though I had some issues with the Werner portion of the book (we know Nazis are bad guys. You don’t really need to make an Evil Nazi Treasure Hunter. We all saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) those sections really captured the dark reality of war. Some people live because they’re the only ones who know how to use the radio. Some die because their boots don’t fit. Others know they’re being sent to die, just more cannon targets for the front.
I wish I could read this book for the first time again. I guess I have to settle for reading it twice.