True art can act as a reminder that, despite conditions of darkness, there is always hope and there is light. “All the Light We Cannot See,” the stunning novel by Anthony Doerr, comments on the nature of blindness and light, both physical and metaphorical. Shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award, the novel is achingly realistic, but retains a hopeful tone. Throughout the narrative, Doerr places emphasis on instances of good that persist in the face of evil. While this message may be trite or cliché in the hands of a less skilled author, Doerr beautifully portrays the dichotomy between light and dark, pain and faith — both in nature and in humanity. His writing is delicate but breathtaking, filled with astounding, evocative metaphors, beautiful dialogue and haunting characters.
The book takes place in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s, approaching the anxiety of the years before and during World War II with quiet beauty. Doerr describes physical and cultural landscapes with equal detail, from the room of a house to the atmosphere of fear which pervades many of the settings. There are two protagonists, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her locksmith father, and Werner Pfennig, a boy who grows up in an orphanage in the German coal-mining town of Zollverein. Both have a natural curiosity about the world, a thirst for knowledge that separates them from other children. Marie-Laure is supported in her interests by her father, who creates puzzle boxes for her to solve and buys her Braille copies of classic books. Werner is aided and abetted in his curiosity by his little sister Jutta, who encourages his enthusiasm for repairing radios.
Although for the majority of the book their storylines are kept separate, the two protagonists’ similarities are striking. Both Marie-Laure and Werner experience a form of blindness: The former’s is primarily physical, but Werner experiences a type of darkness as well. Due to his technical abilities, he is sent to a Hitler Youth school and then into the battlefield. Werner’s knowledge and empathy are lights that are snuffed out by the fear and propaganda regime of the Nazis as he becomes instrumental in an operation which uses radio technology to carry out violent missions. Despite his misgivings, he must confront a darkness that compromises his morality.
As Werner experiences the atrocities of war in Germany and later Eastern Europe, Marie-Laure is also affected. When the Nazis invade France, she and her father relocate to Saint-Malo, a coastal island off France where her eccentric uncle Etienne resides. As Marie becomes involved in life in this new location, her relationships with her family members and her own strength are tested. The paths of the two protagonists ultimately cross, defining the story and its characters.
Doerr is, thankfully, far too subtle a storyteller to write obvious bad guys; every character is given humanity that may belie their crueler actions. The author’s writing can engender sympathy for even the cruelest of his ostensible villains; no one has simple traits or motivations. Doerr makes it clear through his characters and imagery that there is no clear right or wrong in the world, there are only choices. By seeing the decisions made by various characters and their consequences, the reader realizes that what people choose can either bring them closer to enlightenment or draw them to darkness.
“All the Light We Cannot See” is not simply a print narrative, but an experience, one that encourages the readers to reevaluate their own lives, relationships and priorities. The plot of the book and its characters are as multifaceted and complex as the puzzle boxes made by Marie-Laure’s father, revealing hidden depths and secrets, culminating in a stunning ending which is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful for the future.