Reality kept intruding into my re-reading of Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” a book I initially avoided out of fear but read this summer with great pleasure.
The book is about Werner, a small, white-haired German orphan boy who “likes to interrogate the world,” and Marie-Laure, blinded by cataracts at the age of six, daughter of the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Chapters within the book’s complicated structure slide open the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure during the years from 1934 to 1944 and beyond, as smoothly as the intricate puzzle boxes Marie-Laure’s father constructs for her. He also builds a detailed miniature model of their Paris neighborhood to help her learn to navigate the real one by herself.
Smell, touch, and sound describe Marie-Laure’s reality. At the museum, “Botany smells like glue and blotter paper and pressed flowers. Paleontology smells like rock dust, bone dust.” “The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil.” “Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.”
Werner and his sister Jutta find a primitive radio, take it apart, put it back together and hear music and broadcasts from far away in France – magic, a miracle. Werner’s gift with electronics provides his escape from work in the coal mine where his father died. He’s trained and then assigned to a special unit in the German army, searching out and destroying unauthorized transmitters.
When the Germans arrive to occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee, clutching the priceless and cursed diamond (or a copy), which is at the heart of the book’s mystery . After walking through war-ravaged countryside, they arrive at Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast to live with Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne. He resides in a skinny four-story house that hides a transmitter in the attic.
The woman who cares for Etienne, Madam Manec, greets the famished Marie-Laure with the fragrance and sizzle of “egg, spinach, melting cheese.” Madam Manec is 76-years old, and brave in the way of French resistance fighters – who have always seemed the bravest possible people to me.
Last week during a long day in Seattle of reading the book on ferries and in waiting rooms, we drove home through a wind and rain storm to find the driveway littered with tree debris and our house lightless on the dark bluff. A scramble for flashlights and candles restored a dimmer familiarity.
After snuffing candles and going upstairs, curious about Marie-Laure’s world, I crept back down without my headlamp to get an extra blanket. I grasped the stair rail and felt for each step, suddenly uncertain about depth and number. I thought how limited my perception in the dark and how rich Doerr makes Marie-Laure’s world.
But it’s Madame Manec I think of today, my heart aching, after a friendly soccer game between old enemies, a rock concert, and cafes in Paris became scenes of devastation and sorrow. I wish Parisians her courage, wish for light in the City of Light.