I want to talk to you this morning about a beautifully written book by Anthony Doerr that came out in May of this year; the title of the book is All The Light We Cannot See. It is a book about World War II as seen through the eyes of a French girl and a German boy. The story begins in 1939, skips to Aug. 1944, and then moves forward from ’39, backwards from ’44, interweaving the lives of the two children and how the war affects them. The French girl, Marie-Laure is blind from an early age and raised by a devoted and loving father who is the keeper of keys and locksmith for a museum in Paris. The boy, Werner Pfennig, is an orphan, who, along with his little sister Jutta, lives in a small orphanage in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris.
Marie’s father carves a wooden model of the neighborhood in Paris where they live and gets his daughter to learn the streets and buildings by carefully feeling the intricate model he has created for her. When they are forced to leave Paris and flee to Brittany as the Germans advance into France, they settle in with a relative in Saint-Malo. There the father again carves an intricate model of the town, including every structure and street so that his daughter will be able to navigate the streets on her own in case she is left on her own.
Werner is a bright young boy fascinated by all things mechanical and especially by radios.
Doerr quotes Joseph Goebbels in a beginning note, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” And it is radio that eventually connects the two children in complicated and interesting ways. From a very early age, Werner and his sister listen to radio broadcasts from Paris that enchant them. Clever Werner finds a discarded, inoperable shortwave radio, fixes it and begins to pick up whatever signals he can from Germany and cities in Europe. Soon, he is repairing radios and other mechanical devices for everyone in his neighborhood. Eventually, we readers learn that Marie’s eccentric uncle Etienne, a recluse who is a lover of science and classical music, broadcasts science programs from a powerful transmitter he has built in his home, and the programs are picked up by Werner. Both Werner and Jutta are fascinated by the science in the programs, the readings from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the lovely sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It seems simply magical to them that they can hear this voice from a city so far away which brings them both music and science.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Musings about light and color, both philosophical and scientific, pepper this book, and are deeply interesting and beautifully expressed.
When Marie and her father are forced to leave Paris, due to his locksmith position in the museum he is entrusted with an incredibly beautiful diamond called The Sea of Flames. A German officer and gemologist who begins to collect antiques and treasures ransacked from Paris for the Reich, lusts after this gem he has read about but never seen. His relentless search, and the myths surrounding the gem provide yet another strand that brings together the lives of the two children.
Werner’s skills with radios lead to his being drafted into an elite military school for German boys, which is part of the Wehrmacht, and eventually he is assigned the task of tracking down radio transmissions in occupied France. The mathematical method of triangulation Werner develops to track down the origin of radio transmissions is carefully described in the book, along with other scientific developments of the day—all of which add to the story-line.
Marie-Laure miraculously survives the shelling of Saint Malo, though most of the inhabitants do not. Doerr quotes Philip Beck in a beginning note:
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire…Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.
Besides the main stories of Marie and Werner, there are also side-stories about other children, Marie’s great-uncle Etienne and her grandfather. But rather than telling you more of the touching story about the lives and intersection of these children—a story that needs to be read rather than glossed, let me simply say that Doerr does an outstanding job of portraying in sympathetic ways how the war impacted the lives of ordinary people in both France and Germany.
I will not tell you the fate of Werner and Jutta, nor of the gem, The Sea of Flames, but I’m sure you will find those stories as intriguing as I did. Although this is the story of a horrible war, it is in many ways a really lovely book, and one that you will be glad to have read.