Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
This is the December pick for my real-life book club. I always shy away from World War II books, if left to my own instincts. My father was too young to participate in WW2, although he was old enough to be obsessed with it and remembered listening to the radio, hanging on every word of the reporting. I think he was just old enough to get kind of romantic about the bravery & necessity of fighting that war. As an adult, he read piles of non-fiction about the war, went to Remembrance Day services every year and I think he really wished that he’d been of age to join up.
I have no such romantic ideas about war. It’s a dirty, dangerous business and I’m glad that Dad never had the opportunity to get mixed up in it. So I have reservations about fiction concerning this war—I don’t want it glorified or romanticized any further.
All the Light We Cannot See doesn’t romanticize, despite the fact that it is beautifully written, well plotted, and a rather seductive read. Indeed, it is the tension of people doing things that they know aren’t right or doing things that they consider dangerous that gives the book its tension.
I was reminded by Werner’s part of the tale of Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief. As an orphan, Werner’s options are scanty, but he has intelligence on his side. But what if the only outlet for that intelligence is working with the Nazis? Should he have chosen to go down into the mine that killed his father? And even if he did, wouldn’t the flow of minerals still be aiding the Nazi war effort? There are no good choices, not even for the rich (as the story of his friend Fredde shows us).
I also loved the scenes set in the Museum of Natural History, being a museum worker myself. Plus, I loved Fredde’s obsession with birds and Marie-Laure’s appreciation of shells. Having pursued a life-long amateur study of natural history, I could see myself in these pursuits.
So if you, like me, are sitting on the fence about reading this book, I recommend that you give it a try. Yes, you will read about the brutality of war, but you will also meet people who will give you hope for humanity.