It is 1944 and leaflets fly through the air of St Malo, a medieval walled city almost entirely surrounded by sea on the French coast. The leaflets warn the inhabitants of the great storm to come – the allies are about to bomb the city and all who can should leave. Marie-Laure, though, is a young girl and she is blind. She cannot read the leaflets. She hides in her great uncle’s house, waiting for the bombardment to end, wanting to protect the model of St Malo that her father built for her so that she could memorise her way around the narrow streets, but listening out for the signs of evil entering the house in the guise of an unwanted guest. The war is about to get close enough to Marie-Laure that she could reach out and touch it.
Moving between the past, present and future, All the Light We Cannot See allows us to enter the lives of two young people, the French Marie-Laure and Werner, a gifted German boy who knows how to make radios and anything mechanical work. Marie-Laure had lived a relatively content life in Paris with her museum locksmith father, coming to terms with her blindness – she lost her sight aged six – and learning the streets of the city through the models made by her father. That all changed when the Germans invaded the city. Marie-Laure and her father joined the flood of refugees, hiding in St Malo in the mysteriously wonderful house of her great uncle and his strong, brave housekeeper. Werner, just the same age, lived in an orphanage with his sister. His genius earned him the attention of the powerful and he is taken to a military school populated by blond haired boys with blue eyes. It is a baptism of sorts and from it he emerges into a world on fire with war and hatred and death and loneliness. Inevitably, the stories of these two individuals will touch in a novel that carries the tale right through until the present day.
All the Light We Cannot See is a magical novel, lit by the most beautiful prose and gently powerful stories. Werner and Marie-Laure are quiet individuals, vulnerable in many ways – the girl because she cannot see and the boy because he is trapped alone in a system he cannot fight – and yet the drama of the events that surround them is as loud as the bombs that hit St Malo hour after hour. This mingling of the innocent with the guilty and the quiet with the loud is extraordinarily effective and brings the horror of war and the devastating cruelty of the Nazi regime into sharp contrast. Watching events unfold through the perspectives of these two young people, on opposing sides of the conflict though they may be, works very well.
There are moments that stand out among many memorable chapters. I loved the journeys that Marie-Laure is taken on, all without leaving the house, by her eccentric and fascinating great uncle. The moment when the young blind girl walks in the sea waves for the first time is extraordinary and deeply beautiful and sensual. There is much suffering in this girl’s life but there are moments of beauty. For Werner there is very little of that. The scenes set in the military school are harrowing indeed, training the boys to become obedient Nazis. But it is not black and white. Werner is not evil, but what he observes is and his part in it is something that he must deal with throughout the novel.
Moving through the book is another story – the mystery of a blue stone which has the power to protect and preserve its owner while destroying everything he or she holds dear. Whether this power is true or not, it certainly seems real to many and it complicates the fates of many of the characters that we grow close to through the novel, as well as others we don’t. The mystery adds another dimension to the book, giving Marie-Laure and Werner the hope of fantasy or escape. But is is gently done.
The reader is in the position of knowing more about the Nazi regime than our young witnesses but seeing it unfold through their developing experiences adds something both poignant and powerful to its telling. The characters of the youngsters, Marie-Laure in particular, are richly alive and unforgettable. I’ve read a fair few novels about war in this commemorative year of 2014 but All the Light We Cannot See is my favourite.