Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, All the Light We Cannot See is an exquisitely written, intricately woven, expansive story of two children growing up in the throes of World War II. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. Her father works there as the keeper of keys and master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure loses her sight and her father, a skilled woodworker, goes to extreme lengths to help her compensate. He creates an exact, intricate miniature of their neighborhood out of wood. She memorizes buildings and streets by touch which allows her to navigate the real-life neighborhood on her own, granting her freedom and independence. For her birthdays, he makes complicated wooden puzzle boxes that, when solved, reveal a gift inside. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, so she and her father flee to the walled fortress of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. To guard against Nazi looting, the father secrets the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel – a priceless blue diamond called the Sea of Flames. It allegedly bestows on its keeper the gift of eternal life, but curses all he loves with unending misfortune. Suspense is added to the novel as a Nazi treasure hunter is hot on their trail, obsessed with pursuing the fabled gem.
In a parallel story in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in the coal-mining town of Zollverein with his sister Jutta – both orphaned when their father is crushed in the coal mines. When they find a broken short-wave radio behind the Children’s Home where they live, Werner repairs it – discovering an uncanny talent and interest in electronics. On the radio, they chance upon a mysterious Frenchman talking about science and how the brain can create light in darkness: “What do we call visible light?” the Frenchman asks. “We call it color. But . . . really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” They spend many evenings listening to the enigmatic Frenchman over the airwaves. Werner again proves his electronic prowess when a German officer asks if he can fix an expensive Philco radio owned by a rich, powerful couple in town. Being successful earns him a reputation that spares him from a life in the mines and lands him a spot in an elite Nazi school that emphasizes military training. When he graduates, his discipline and scientific skill launch him into the Wehrmacht, where he is tasked with finding the sources of illegal radio transmissions. He becomes dispirited when on one of his missions he tracks a radio signal to its source: “Inside the closet is not a radio but a child sitting on her bottom with a bullet through her head.” He remembers the Frenchman’s broadcasts – a time when science was a tool for wonder and understanding, not for death and destruction.
The beauty of the novel is when the author, Anthony Doer, brings these two captivating lives together from opposite sides of the war. In 1944, when Allied forces have landed on the beaches in Normandy, Werner’s unit is dispatched to Saint-Malo to find and destroy the sender of cryptic intelligence broadcasts. Marie-Laure, Werner, and the gem chaser all come together in the novel’s climax in Saint-Malo. The structure of the novel, cutting back and forth in time, is pieced together as intricately as one of Marie-Laure’s puzzle boxes – the gift inside is well worth the 544-page effort.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, May 1. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 3 to discuss All the Light We Cannot See at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.