All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is itself a rare diamond in contemporary literature. Doerr, who toiled for ten years on the novel, chose carefully each word to guarantee the book's elegance. The richness and depth of metaphoric language is painfully exquisite, as is the artfully drawn tale of a German boy and a French girl who come of age during World War II.
Werner Pfennig and his little sister, Jutta, are foster children, living in an austere home of their guardian, Frau Elena. Although Werner is captivated by anything mechanical, he has an uncanny ability to diagnose and repair problems in broken radios Although his future in the Third Reich appears to be that of a coal miner, he is recognized for his extraordinary mechanical aptitude and is placed in a special school for gifted children. There he becomes close friends with a sensitive boy, Frederick, who is passionate about birds, but must keep his obsession hidden or he will become the target of extreme bullying. The friendship between Werner and Frederick is one of the few bonds Werner achieves in his lifetime, and the symbolism of the birds that Frederick adores runs richly throughout the story.
Marie-Laure Le Blanc, a six year old Parisian girl at the book's beginning, grows up in a museum of natural history, where her father, a talented woodsmith, is the keeper of the keys. Marie Laure, who loses her sight early in her life, learns how to hone her sense of smell and sound to navigate the world around her. She is captivated by the specimens in the museum, particularly the Gallery of Mineralogy, where she learns the myth of the magnificent sapphire, the Sea of Flames.
According to legend, the prince of Borneo plucked the uncanny stone from a riverbed, but on his way home he was stabbed in the heart by thieves, who stole his rings, but somehow missed the stone hidden in his hand. The prince recovered miraculously, but all those who were closely aligned to him died tragically, leaving the prince alone. This mystical stone becomes the centerpiece of Marie-Laure and her father's escape from Paris to the island of St. Malo, where they hide out from the Nazis in the old building owned by Marie Lauer's uncle, Etienne. Stifled by memories of World War I, Etienne is a recluse from the world and spends most of his days hidden in his room. However, as Marie Laure's father disappears into the smoke of war, Etienne is forced to assume resposibilities for Marie Laure as well as the French resistance.
Ultimately, Doerr weaves the tale of two lost children, an albino boy and a blind girl, bringing them together for a catacylsmic moment, written so poignantly in so few pages that it is magical. As Werner, who has been conscripted into the fading German army at the age of 16, finds his way to the musty attic where Marie Laure has been broadcasting readings from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, along with hidden messages to the French people, their meeting has not been happenstance. It has been plotted and planned deliberately as the climax for Doerr's beautiful story. It is Marie Laure's love of reading, the sea and its mysterious creatures that bring her to salvation. Werner and Marie Laure's worlds collide for a brief time, but their encounter resonates for decades.
When I finished reading All the Light We Cannot See, I did something I never do. I returned to the first page of the book and began to read it again. The novel demands a second, and perhaps a third look. The prose is so poetic and beautiful, it must be contemplated deeply. Also, the story is told going back and forth from 1940 to 1944, ending in the present day. Thus, to follow the thread of the plot, a seond reading is necessary. This, however, in a book so masterfully written, is not a bad thing. Doerr has written an extraordinary piece that I recommend to all who love character, fine language, and elegance in story telling.
Beth Moroney, former English teacher and administrator in the Edison Public School District, specialized in teaching Creative Writing and Journalism. Recently Moroney published Significant Anniversaries of Holocaust/Genocide Education and Human/Civil Rights, available through the New Jersey Commission on the Holocaust. A passionate reader, Moroney is known for recommending literature to students, teachers, parents, and the general public for over forty years. Moroney can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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