Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner), has been atop the best-seller chart for several months. I finished reading it last week. Though it’s set in the turmoil of World War II, it’s really a novel about childhood—its wonders and insecurities. Most of the novel bounces back and forth between the perspective of two characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl whose beloved father is a locksmith; and Werner, a German boy with an extraordinary aptitude for gadgets, and especially for radios.
To accommodate and overcome Marie-Laure’s blindness, her father carves scale models of the Paris neighborhood in which they live. He also takes her on walks during which they count the drainpipes they’re passing. By such means, the girl learns to navigate her neighborhood and achieve a measure of independence. Meanwhile, she reads Jules Verne in braille and marvels at the wonders of creatures that her scientist-grandfather discusses on a radio program. Later, she’ll be especially fascinated with snails—and Doerr’s description of this fascination is shimmering and engrossing.
Werner grows up adoring his younger sister, Jutta, who shares his obsession with radios. The boy adeptly disassembles and reassembles radios. He and Jutta listen to broadcasts through long, enchanted evenings. (One of the broadcasts they most prize, we will later learn, is the same broadcast beamed out by Marie-Laure’s grandfather.) Eventually Werner is drafted into a Hitler youth program, where the brutal training forces him to grow up fast, and where his facility with radios serves him well.
The war overtakes both of our characters. Marie-Laure and her father are forced out of Paris to the countryside. Werner is sucked into the maw of the war in East Germany and Russia. Finally, in some of the novel’s sweetest passages, Marie-Laure and Werner meet offer one another succor and aid. By now they are in their late teens, but they are still so much children. And still they are seeking wonder.