All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows two children, one in Germany and the other in France, mostly between 1934 and 1944. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is blind and depends on her father who works for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, for constant directions in moving about their home in Paris. Werner Pfennig, an orphan in the coal region of Essen, relies on books found in the trash to study mathematics and physics.
The two characters spend only one terrifying afternoon together, but there are earlier connections. Werner and his younger sister find a broken radio, which he repairs, so they can listen to broadcasts from around Europe, including a science program for children hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. Ambitious, longing to do anything but work in the mines that killed his father, Werner tries to overlook the horrors of a fascist system, fearful when his sister speaks out. After the Nazis ban devices that access foreign programming, he smashes their radio, incurring his sister’s wrath.
Passing competitive exams, Werner is sent to a national political institute run by Nazis, a place where “every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness.” Werner is protected by helping a professor research use of radio waves to locate transmitters. He befriends a wealthy, connected boy who loves nature and birds and refuses to humiliate others. Frederick recognizes that a cruel system traps them all and at one point advises, “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.” Werner “has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.”
Werner is curious, keeping a notebook and logging all the questions he wishes to explore. Yet the fascist system, like extremist religions, is intent on control and preventing people from thinking for themselves. One instructor suggests: “Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.” Later, on the front, another colleague marvels about Werner, “What you could be.” Werner finds himself missing the coal town he was so eager to leave and his sister: “her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.” She could see through the Nazis’ angry propaganda: “How did Jutta understand so much more about how the world worked? While he knew so little?”
Marie-Laure, unable to see, is understandably fretful and anxious, full of questions about the impending invasion of France, and the writer is skilled in describing her surroundings through only the senses of taste, smell, sound and touch. Her father makes a model of their neighborhood and drills her on using her cane, counting drains and curbs, touching fences and tree trunks, to find her way home from unnamed locations. She possesses a few Braille workbooks along with a copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. She comes to view the world as complex mazes: “The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models…. None were more complicated than the human brain… one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
The father and daughter flee Paris for the coast and his uncle’s home, and the museum entrusts the man with a rare diamond, rumored to be cursed. Her father rejects such stories. “There is luck maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.”
Marie-Laure and their housekeeper convince her introvert uncle to support the resistance. Werner’s unit detects the family’s hidden radio, and the two children connect in person and help one another. One survives and the other perishes.
The war teaches that ordinary life – simple, normal secure routines rather than power or riches – is heaven. Those on either side who survive the war are traumatized. Every bite of food, any comfort, feeling like a betrayal to those who did not. Brutal memories sabotage pleasant ones, and grief about those who did not survive prick any scrap of happiness. Decades later, the character who survives wonders if the war’s dead and missing might travel the sky in flocks – “That great shuttles of souls might fly about… They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour… someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world. We will rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”
Ordinary beauty can be the most rewarding, and some we do not notice until it vanishes.