This book actually made me cry but I was surprised at the place it did and why… It was not about one of the heroes being rescued or another dying, but about the unsentimental description of daily life of one of the secondary character, who has found a measure of happiness in adulthood after going through some harrowing experiences as a teenager during WWII.
Through the intertwined stories of Werner, a young German boy with a gift for science, and Marie-Laure, a young French girl with a vivid imagination who became blind at 7 years old, we find out about the impact of World War II on some of the ordinary people who had to endure its effects, without much say as to the role they were to play.
Until the war Marie-Laure had grown up in Paris, living with her father, a locksmith at the museum of natural sciences, where much of her education comes from constant contact with the various scientists she encounters on a daily basis. Her understanding of the world comes from her heightened sense of touch (the shape and characteristics of the shells of various sea creatures), smell (the shops in her neighborhood) and hearing (birdsong, voices, and the various sounds of the urban environment she lives in). When the German forces approach Paris, her father takes her to live with his uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo, where she has to learn to navigate a whole new environment. In spite of the difficulties of living in wartime, Marie-Laure is surrounded by loving and caring adults who both protect her and foster her growth as a resilient human being.
Werner is an orphan whose father died in a coal mining accident and he lives in a small orphanage with his sister Jutta. Werner is gifted with repairing things, in particular radios, which will be his greatest advantage in life. He finds a broken radio and fixes it. With it, he and Jutta can listen to radio stations from distant countries, especially a scientific broadcast for children from France, until the German authorities block out foreign broadcasts. Thanks to his gift, Werner is admitted to a school preparing boys for the army and he becomes a radio operator. He does end up in France after serving in many locations, where he discovers that the science broadcasts he loved some much as a child were made by Marie-Laure’s grand-father. He saves Marie-Laure’s life.
After the war, Marie-Laure returns to Paris and becomes a science student, in spite of her blindness. Werner’s life has no happy ending. Jutta does survive, she becomes a high school math teacher, has a son and nice husband. And this is what made me cry:
Jutta Wette teaches sixth-form algebra in Essen: integers, probability, parabolas. Every day she wears the same outfit: black slacks with a nylon blouse — alternately beige, charcoal, or pale blue. Occasionnally the canary-yellow one, if she’s feeling unrestrained. Her skin is milky and her hair remains white as paper.
Jutta’s husband, Albert, is a kind, slow-moving, and balding accountant whose great passion is running model trains in the basement. For a long time Jutta believed she could not get pregnant and then, one day, when she was thirty-seven years old, she did. Their son, Max, is six, fond of mud, dogs, and questions no one can answer.
Is she really happy? What gives her joy? What Jutta craves more than anything else is normality. She will get disturbed by a former classmate of Werner who shows up one day, much after the end of the war, with his personal effects. She feels compelled to travel to France.
This description comes nowhere near the complexity of the plotline… There is also the obsession of the discovery of life through reading (of course!). For Marie-Laure, there are the Braille books of Jules Verne, one per year because they are so expensive, which she reads over and over again. For Werner, there is a physics textbook that is confiscated.
There is also a legend surrounding an old valuable diamond that is supposedly hidden in a safe at the museum of natural sciences, which Marie-Laure’s father may have been to keep safe during the war (or was it a fake used as a decoy?). According to the legend, “the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain”. The curse could only be lifted by throwing the diamond into the sea.
The stone was called the Sea of Flames, and it is as magnificent as the storytelling in this book.
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014.
Julie Christine wrote a wonderful review at http://chalkthesun.org/2014/11/24/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr/