Saturday, July 16, 2016

Review of "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr




Just before the start of World War II Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a little girl living in Paris with her father, the keeper of keys at the Museum of Natural History. Marie is blinded by cataracts at age six, so her father - who's clever at building models and puzzle boxes - constructs a wooden model of the neighborhood to teach Marie to get around. Marie is an intelligent child and budding naturalist who enjoys hanging out with scientists at the museum. She also cherishes her braille book "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne.

As it happens, the Natural History Museum is rumored to house a large, beautiful diamond called the "Sea of Flame. Myths say that whoever possesses the diamond becomes immortal but his/her loved ones suffer terrible misfortunes. After the war starts - when the Germans are about to take over Paris - the museum packs up and sends off its treasures in an attempt to keep them safe. Many people also flee the city and Marie and her father make their way to the coast city of Saint-Malo. There they live with Marie's great uncle, an eccentric, kindly gentleman who, like Marie, has an interest in science.

Meanwhile, in a German town, teenager Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage. Like all boys in the area, at the age of fifteen Werner will be forced to work in the local coal mines where his father was killed. Werner, however, has an almost genius talent with electronics, especially radios. When this comes to the attention of the Nazis, Werner is sent to a select school to hone his skills. Soon afterwards young Werner is conscripted into the German army, where he joins a unit that tracks down radios used by the resistance to broadcast seditious information. When found, the resistance members are killed and the radio equipment confiscated.

Meanwhile a terminally ill Nazi officer - who apparently believes the stories about the "Sea of Flame" - is obsessively searching all over France to get his hands on the stone.

As the story unfolds, we follow Marie and Werner's experiences during the war. As Werner aids the Nazis in their destructive path around Europe Marie is drawn into a resistance movement. Towards the end of the war (and the end of the book), when the Allies are bombing Germany to smithereens, Werner's army unit arrives in Saint-Malo. At this point the various story lines come together and Werner and Marie become acquainted and form an unlikely friendship.

As expected in a book about war, there are many disturbing scenes. The Nazis are especially brutal, even to fellow Germans. At Werner's school, for example, 'weak students' are singled out and harassed. Werner's gentle friend Frederick, a dreamer who likes to bird-watch, becomes the focus of a particularly sadistic school official. Werner, in turn, suffers tremendous guilt for his inability to help his friend. Another unpleasant character is a French perfumer in Saint-Malo, who - wanting to gain favor with the Nazis - snitches (or make up lies) about his neighbors. This leads to fear, paranoia, and the arrest of Marie's father. In contrast, there are scenes of a vicious Nazi thinking about his beloved children, a reminder that (hard as it is to believe) Nazis had some human instincts.

The book has a strong, compelling plot and characters that are well-drawn and believable. And Anthony Doerr does a masterful job of interweaving the various story lines so that they all mesh at the book's climax.

This is a good book, worth reading.

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