I try to escape WWII, I’m tired of goons with iron crosses on their hats, the little guy with the Chaplin mustache, and their valiant foes. So, what am I doing inside this book, this All the Light We Cannot See? It’s not just that we experience in these pages both sides of the conflict, though we do. It’s not just that we escape the stereotypes of that conflict, though we do. It’s that the main characters are all trapped into their situations by their governments and are required to play out their roles, understand them or not. Like them or not. And we’re with them, not their governments as their stories play out.
Once there was a locksmith with a blind daughter. He worked in the National Museum in Paris, where his services were essential. He lived a life devoted both to his work and his child. He invented ingenious ways to help her become independent, guiding her throughout their neighborhood till his Marie Laure could find her way back to their apartment from quite a distance. He went further, constructing a model of the same neighborhood as an instructional aide, guiding her fingers over the buildings and the streets. She accompanied him to work, and the employees were liable to find her anywhere in the building, investigating, questioning.
Another trick. Every birthday Marie Laure’s father would give her a box with a secret mechanism for opening it. If she couldn’t open it, she wouldn’t have the gift inside. She always solved it.
Once there was German orphan named Werner who was born with a gift for science. He applied the gift most often in service of radio communications, building his own radio sets and listening to forbidden programming far into the night, his sister at his side. Soon, he became well-known for his ability to repair radios. The circuitry just appeared to him in his brain and he fixed it.
WWII comes, and all the orphan boys are sent to the coal mines with speeches about how valuable their services are to the fatherland. All except Werner. He has become too valuable to be wasted underground, so he is sent for special training, given a uniform, and sent into battle as a communications specialist. He is fourteen.
Paris falls when Marie Laure is about fourteen. She and her father escape to a Norman village where her uncle owns a large house. There, they await the end of the war for a couple of years and do what they can to sabotage the enemy–troop position notes inside of bread loaves. That sort of thing.
Eventually, author Doerr brings them together. The results are both lovely and wrenching, as is so much else about this superb book. I’m still weary of WWII stereotypes, but will never tire of this fine piece of writing.