All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, by Anthony Doerr, Scribner, 544 pages
Set in World War II France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See is my favorite kind of novel: long, rich, populated by a range of imperfect characters, some who try to transcend that imperfection, others who cannot see it.
The cast of characters includes Marie-Laure, blind since age six, with a quick mind and a great deal of self-confidence; her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, an agoraphobic haunted by ghosts since he returned from World War I; the great-uncle’s elderly housekeeper, who finds the courage to join the French resistance; Werner, a German orphan who is a prodigy in the creation and repair of radios; Werner’s sister Jutta, left behind when Werner is accepted into a science academy for Hitler Youth that offers more political indoctrination than science; and a whole host of others.
Anthony Doerr brings this wide assembly of individuals to life, moving among them, slowly drawing them nearer one another, fleshing each of them out so that even those we might expect to be stereotypes are much more multifaceted.
And among these multifaceted characters lies a multifaceted stone: a diamond with a legendary history. In less able hands, the diamond would have dominated this story, which would have degenerated into a variation on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s the characters who are the heart of All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few we hate, but for the most part, we can’t help but see the better parts of them. The question is whether they will discover these better selves in time to make a difference of some sort in a world quite literally in flames.
I’m hesitant to provide more summary. Reading this book, meeting the people in it, sharing their journeys, is an engrossing experience that shouldn’t be undercut by foreknowledge. All the Light We Cannot See contains a great deal of action, but that action is more than balanced by the development of characters we witness over the decade or so that this novel encompasses. This is novel of people more than it is a novel of events.
I received and electronic ARC of this book to review and find myself longing for its release date so I can get a paper copy, one that will feel as solid in my hands as Doerr’s narrative. We’re less than halfway through the year, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if in December I remember All the Light We Cannot See as my favorite read of the year.