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Light Found in Darkness of Wartime

"Boy meets girl in Anthony Doerr’s hauntingly beautiful new book, but the circumstances are as elegantly circuitous as they can be. The heroine of “All the Light We Cannot See” is blind, but anyone familiar with Mr. Doerr’s work, which includes the short-story collections “The Shell Collector” and “Memory Wall,” will know that its title has many more meanings than that.

The heroine is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose loving father, a talented locksmith, goes to extraordinary lengths to help her compensate for the loss of her eyesight. Professionally, Marie-Laure’s father oversees all the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Privately, after his daughter is blinded by cataracts in 1934 at the age of 6, he devises tiny, intricate models of the places she must go, so that she learns to navigate by touch and then by memory.

Mr. Doerr’s acutely sensory style captures the extreme perceptiveness Marie-Laure has developed by the time World War II begins. Much of the story unfolds during the war, although it jumps back and forth. The book opens in August 1944, two months after D-Day, with the sound of things falling from the sky and rattling against windows. Marie-Laure knows these are leaflets. She can smell the fresh ink.

Credit...Patricia Wall/The New York Times
Marie-Laure grows up beloved and fortunate; Werner’s life is more grim. He is close to his sister, Jutta, but both are consigned to an orphanage after their father is crushed in a coal mine. For Werner, there truly seems to be no future: The German government decrees that when boys from his region reach their mid-teens, they must go to work in the mines. But Werner is also a prodigy. Just as Marie-Laure’s father has a genius for creating locks and models, Werner has a way with electrical circuits. He builds a shortwave radio that holds the key to his future.

Word of Werner’s extraordinary talent gets around. One day in 1939, a German officer who smells of cake asks Werner to accompany him to the household of a rich, powerful couple whose big, expensive Philco radio is on the fritz. Fixing it not only gets him all the cake he can eat (a treat beyond imagining for a boy of his background), but it also brings him candidacy for an elite Nazi school where the emphasis is on extreme military training. Werner isn’t surprised to pass the entrance exams easily. He’s more nonplussed to find his head measured with calipers and his hair whiter than any of the 60-odd shades of blond on the examiners’ charts. It goes without saying that his eyes are also rated for their shade of blue.

Werner’s experience at the school is only one of the many trials through which Mr. Doerr puts his characters in this surprisingly fresh and enveloping book. What’s unexpected about its impact is that the novel does not regard Europeans’ wartime experience in a new way. Instead, Mr. Doerr’s nuanced approach concentrates on the choices his characters make and on the souls that have been lost, both living and dead."


All the Light We Cannot See is available in the historical fiction section at the Library.  Stop in, peruse the selection and enjoy a hot beverage.  You may also wish to check out the craft sale that is ongoing until December 26.

REMINDER:  Library Holiday Party is December 2, with special guests Santa and Mrs. Claus

She is in the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo, a terrifically picturesque and apt setting for the most dramatic part of Mr. Doerr’s story. Saint-Malo is occupied by German forces and under siege by the Allied bombers that destroyed much of it before the war was over. And five streets away from the house to which Marie-Laure and her father have fled, a young German soldier named Werner Pfennig is trapped in the ruins of a grand hotel. Long before Werner and Marie-Laure meet, Mr. Doerr has created a skein of ties between them.