A package came in the mail for my son recently. He was over the moon. A new pair of wireless Bluetooth earbuds. As he showed me how they work, I marvelled at the idea that music and voices can travel invisibly, inaudibly from the phone on his study desk, past the genkan, down the hall, through my kitchen and into his smiling little mind. It’s a wonder, really. Mostly I use devices now without wonder. It felt good to wonder with my son—as Anthony Doerr must have felt the wonder of Werner Pfennig’s joy in radio waves. Wonder is what Doerr makes you feel about this 1930s and 40s technology that drove military strategies in World War II and that drives plot lines in his novel All the Light We Cannot See.
Werner’s fierce and delicate intelligence at age seven untangles radio wires and waves—at first for the magic of it, later for the science of it, then for the cakes he gets as a reward for solving German war problems. Eventually his talent becomes a ticket out of the orphanage and into a sparkling, innocent hope for his future. As we watch, we know the war and its Hitler Youth will crush this delicate boy’s innocence, but we trust in the survival of his talent. And we wait to see how he will use it for some good.
This novel has two story lines: Werner’s and the story of a blind French girl, Marie- Laure, roughly Werner’s age whose father is a lock master at the Natural History Museum in Paris. A dastardly diamond from the museum, carried through the war’s chaos in coat pockets and miniature lock-boxes, creates the magnetic force which eventually allows Werner’s story to intersect with Marie-Laure’s. But not without a Nazi in pursuit of the gem’s healing power. The climax takes place in a seaside French town where waves of the personal, the political and the historical crash against literal ramparts. I don’t remember the last time I read a book which uses the word “ramparts” in so many chapters and to such defensible ends.
Doerr’s prose can be as fierce and delicate as Werner himself, rich in sensory detail. But his shifting time frames were confusing to me. I often flipped back to section or chapter headings just to get myself oriented. Perhaps such puzzling is Doerr’s way of leading us through the awful wonder and mystery that happens in war, all the way holding firm to the hands of a blind girl and an orphan boy.
All the Light We Cannot See is a 2016 Sakura Medal contender and one of the novels being read in the High School Book Club.
The ASIJ HS Library has joined the Somewhat Virtual Book Club (#SWVBC) which brings HS students from across the US and beyond together to discuss the same book!
Take a look at their Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/swvbc/