All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr


It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?

               from  All the Light We Cannot See


Trajectories of the human soul

What the war did to dreamers, laments a character at the end of Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

It’s 1944 in occupied France, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a sixteen-year-old French girl who is blind. Werner Pfennig is an eighteen-year-old German soldier. Their lives are about to converge in the historic walled town of Saint-Malo.

The story then jumps ten years earlier, and in brief, alternating chapters, we follow Marie and Werner through their childhoods and adolescences as they make their way to the approaching rendezvous in a future they cannot discern.

Marie loses her sight at six, but her devoted father, who works at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, finds creative ways to help her compensate for the loss, and she develops a curious and active mind.

Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are orphans in Germany as Nazism rises around them. Werner has a fascination and aptitude for mechanical things, and he builds radios from discarded junk. With these, he and Jutta entertain themselves listening to programs.

Because of this technical aptitude, Werner is sent to an elite school for Hitler Youth, where he devises the equipment and methodology to “triangulate” and identify the location of another radio transmitter’s signal.

With the outbreak of war and the Germans advance on Paris, the museum attempts to safeguard its greatest treasures. Marie’s father is entrusted to take with him and hide a large exquisite diamond, called the Sea of Flame. He and Marie depart for the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where they stay with Marie’s eccentric great uncle Etienne. Hidden within his house, Etienne has a radio that he uses to send messages for the French resistance.

The Wehrmacht has successfully used Werner’s skill to locate and destroy the radio transmitters of the resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. As the Germans prepare for the Normandy invasion, Werner is sent to France to locate the French resistance’s radio signals.

And the scene is set.

When Marie and Werner’s lives at last converge, we see what they cannot: their personal stories trailing behind them like the tails of two comets.

What we call destiny may be sensing the way one has come before it happens, and glimpsing the trajectory of the soul working backwards in time.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.