This is the story to all the light we cannot see: most relevantly to this story radio waves that are on the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to see is the literal translation but there is another one, this is a story that hasn’t yet been told, one of the many that escaped the notice of the world when faced with the bigger stories of World War II. Anthony Doerr has given us two stories one for each of the youngsters who just happened to be born on opposing sides before there was a war.
First we have Marie-Laure who before the war is living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure is blind, she lost her sight at six and is generally doted upon by the museum staff as well as her father. To help her with her independence he has built her a model of her neighbourhood, she learns from her fingers where the buildings are. He is also a lover of puzzles so each year on her birthday she receives a box with a treasure hidden inside it, and if she is lucky a braille book telling of magical creatures; Marie-Laure has a fascination with molluscs.
Werner has had an entirely different start to life. He lives in a mining town in Germany, an orphan after his father lost his life in the very mines that Werner is destined to work in as soon as he is old enough. Meanwhile Werner and his younger sister Jutta find a radio which sparks a love of the music and the tales from foreign lands for Jutta and for Werner it is an opportunity for him to learn how it works. It is clear that for Werner a life down the mines will be a waste of an exceptional talent.
Of course we know that life won’t go down the tracks expected for either of these children in Paris Marie-Laure’s father is sent on a mission which ends up in St Malo and for Werner his journey starts with Hitler’s Youth. There are some similarities though, Marie-Laure’s life is curtailed, it isn’t safe for her to venture out of the house of her Uncle Etienne and soon there is a ban on television. Werner on the other hand has to overcome his own instincts in order to survive but at what cost. His relationship with his sister damaged the day he breaks their radio for one that can only receive German stations, she has lost the inspiration of the Frenchman giving children’s lectures and soon she will be left behind at the orphanage. In time these two main characters lives converge and both will need to dig deep to find what seems like impossible reserves of courage.
Widely acclaimed All The Light We Cannot See deserves its accolades although it took longer than I expected for the book to get into its stride. The timeline moves around quite rapidly and so the précis I have given takes a while to fully emerge whilst empathy for both characters is established. Without the profound underlying tale, I was predisposed to like this book as a large part of it is set in St Malo, the place we visit from Jersey, a mere hour away on the ferry. I go to sit outside in the sunshine in the cafes eating galettes and macarons to wander the many alleyways and to walk along the ramparts and look out to sea, never realising until now quite how much of this beautiful walled city was damaged during the war. That said there are a few off-key phrases where the author lets the modern world slip in, but these can be forgiven for the wonderful strands that connect the story together from the first to the last page.
I received my copy of this book from the publishers Harper Collins UK in return for my honest opinion.