All the Light We Cannot See. Anthony Doerr

Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner, New York, 2014. Retrieved in digital form for Kindle. F; 7/15

This is a lovely book. It’s got everything: alive and unusual characters, an intriguing story, graceful writing, and an author filled with masterful excitement at what he’s doing. It’s a love story set in World War II, the characters partly preoccupied with contemporary science and technology, playing out in the shadow of a mysterious precious stone. The main characters are uniquely capable young people thrown against their own limitations and the terrible war. Their coming-of-age and inevitable meeting pull us along like parallel undercurrents almost from the beginning. The human and metaphysical themes Doerr deals with are more-than-adequately supported by the wonderful characters and rich story.

I lost my handwritten notes, causing me to procrastinate writing this review long enough to forget a lot about this book. But its long-distance and slowly, slowly-approaching love story isn’t easy to forget. Young Werner escapes as a schoolboy from a dreary life in a German coal mining town, when local higher-ups notice his prodigious ability to invent and repair things, especially radios. He leaves his sister behind, receiving the privilege of attending a hideous elite Nazi school for brilliant boys, which is founded and run on the principles that gave us Aryan chauvinism and the death camps.

Meanwhile Marie-Laure is a blind Parisian girl, helped into appreciation of the wonders of biology by her locksmith father who works in a Paris life sciences academy. He is a meticulous model-maker and constructs perfect tiny replicas of the neighborhood, to teach his daughter the physical characteristics of her environment. An elaborate ruse he participates in to try to conceal a priceless gem (reputed to have extra-material influences on people and events) from the invading Germans leads the two of them to the northern French walled city of St Malo. Werner is coincidentally sent there also, to search out resistance broadcasts by deploying his wonderfully original radio-signal-finding device.

Werner, and we, discover that a gifted teacher who for many years sent out nighttime shortwave lessons and whom Werner idolized as a child is Marie-Laure’s introverted uncle, his transmitter hidden in an attic. The city is destroyed by the American Air Force. Boy meets girl.

There is a postlude many years later where Werner’s sister receives a visit from one of her brother’s former army comrades, and we are teased about the whereabouts of the precious gem, and again about lives crossing and recrossing one another.

Some reviewers didn’t like language they found to be overly floral, but it didn’t bother me if I noticed it at all. Among the human and metaphysical themes I mentioned is this:

(Speaking of text messages Marie-Laure’s grandson is sending, in near-contemporary times) I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say?… Hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths?

Well, it is. But I found that the author’s charming enthusiasm for what he was doing and the ambiguity about how literal or metaphorical those paths might be let me credit the conceit emotionally without feeling embarrassed.

Tracy Kidder said we are looking for the author when we read. The person we find throughout and at the end of this story isn’t bad at all. I can’t quite characterize what causes me to remember this book as just a very small but definite cut below my all-time favourites, but it’s still awfully close to as good as it gets. Highly recommended. 9.1/9.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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