All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a rare book; brilliantly written, a fascinating story, best seller, entirely worthy and highly acclaimed. The historical setting for the novel is the siege of St. Malo in World War II.
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint Malo…was almost totally destroyed by fire. This should not have happened. If the attacking U.S. forces had not believed a false report…it might have been saved… A ring of U.S. mortars showered incendiary shells on the magnificent granite houses…thirty thousand valuable books and manuscripts were lost… Of the 865 buildings within the walls only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree. (See The Burning of Saint Malo)
This is not “another World War II book.” The war is not the subject, we, its readers, are or, rather, the world we find ourselves in.
At the dawn of Hitler’s rise, two young orphans, Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, are raised at the Children’s House in Zollvererein, Germany, a coalmining complex near Essen, 300 miles northeast of Paris. One day Werner finds a discarded crystal-set radio, repairs it, and the discovery spins a beautiful novel into motion.
Werner’s electronic wizardry is discovered by the Nazis. The electronic ranging device Werner invents later, in their service, eventually leads him to Saint Malo. Also there is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind Parisian girl who has escaped the invasion of Paris by fleeing with her father to the coast. Marie’s grandfather, we know as readers, inspired little Werner years earlier with periodic science (and philosophy!) broadcasts from Saint Malo before the war. In war time the transmitter at Marie-Laure’s house becomes the object of Werner’s ranging machine.
Werner and Marie will surely meet, won’t they?
We are also treated to a notorious missing diamond, the Sea of Flames; Uncle Etienne, who hasn’t had the courage to leave his house in years; Major Von Rumpel, a villain; Frederick, a Saint; the unfathomable west coast of France; excerpts from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and thousands of beautiful insights.
Any book pivoted about World War II will have its dark moments. All the Light We Cannot See neither avoids or dwells on them. This is a big book, too short at that, a jewel meant to be read at least twice.