I remember the first time I read a story by Anthony Doerr, in the wonderful collection "The Shell Collector." I was immediately taken with his prose, a unique combination of lyricism, prose-poetry, and clarity. He is known best for his stories and now, in a sweeping 500+ page novel, he weaves together multiple stories of French, German and Russian perpetrators, all in some way victims of World War II.
Although Amazon selected the novel as best book of the month when published in May, their review also begged the question: do we need another novel about WWII? Apparently, all the stories have yet to be told, and, more importantly, few told as beautifully as "All the Light we Cannot See."
The tales unfold in chapters alternating between key characters: Werner, an orphan with a penchant for gadgets, and a prodigious ability with electrical circuits and radio technology, which the Nazi's discover most useful to their land war; and Marie-Laure, a blind adolescent whose father, locksmith for the Paris natural history museum, has taken her to the walled coastal city Saint-Malo, only to face the French occupation, and a town that will become the last German stronghold as the war nears end.
In truth, as fascinating as Werner's character and prowess, and his thoughtful attachment to his sister, I sped through his chapters to Marie-Laure's because she was such a fascinating persona, and this was easy to do because all the chapters are brief, further accelerating the narrative.
"To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away."
The story revolves in large part on a gem stolen by Marie-Laure's father from the museum for protection, a stone rumored to ruin the lives of those in its possession, which he buries in a model of the city he builds for Marie-Laure so that she might learn her way around. Marie's lifelong independence stems from her father's determination to teach his daughter to survive her blindness, and these skills ultimately allow her to survive far more.
From 1940 to 2014, we follow Marie-Laure, her father, her traumatized uncle, another fascinating characters, and eclectic French and German friends, and Werner, his sister, Jutta, as well as Werner's assorted friends and mentors. The chapters dealing with Nazi schools meant to train their youth are especially chilling, and psychologically enlightening.
In the end, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure find each other through the wireless, and through the books and music lovingly handed down to Marie-Laure, and they bring these connections to all their friends and loved ones many years after the devastation of the war.