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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE
by Anthony Doerr
Scribner, May 2014
544 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 1476746583


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is many different books, depending upon the lens the reader brings to it. Although labelled literary fiction, on one level it is suspense. An invaluable blue diamond with a red core, the size of a robin's egg and pear shaped, has been removed from a museum in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Several exceptional copies have been produced, and the copies as well as the original are scattered throughout France as a means of keeping the true diamond out of the hands of the plunderers. Throughout the book, a German mineralogist, Van Rumpel, searches for the diamond, which may or may not have a curse upon it that keeps its owner alive while bringing disaster to all of his or her loved ones. At the same time, a young German radioman, Werner, develops the technology to triangulate radio signals and uses that technology to find partisans broadcasting information harmful to the Germans. A young blind French girl, Marie Laure, sits at the nexus of both searches. The diamond and the radio signals bring Van Rumpel and Werner to Saint Malo, whence Marie Laure has fled from Paris, just as the island comes under attack.

The book is also a treatise on the ways in which war affects the innocent, dealing with how difficult it is to be good during bad times. Both Werner and Marie Laure ask the question of who the "good guys" are. Marie Laure is literally blind to the circumstances, while Werner is encouraged to avoid the personal toll of his work as he tells himself, "It is only mathematics." As the book opens, we experience the childhoods of both, with Marie Laure hidden away from outside reality in Paris' Museum of Natural History where her father holds all the keys and Werner hidden away in his mind and the possibilities presented by radio waves and mathematics. In ways unbeknownst to them, they are connected even in childhood, but it is not until the end of the book that they actually meet. Knowing the two from childhood, and staying with them in alternating chapters as they grow up during the war, provides a keyhole into the personal damage WWII inflicted.

Werner and Marie Laure are the focus of the book, but all of the supporting characters are also well-wrought. Whether it's Werner's sister, who shares his love of the radio and sees the direction of the war well before he does, or Marie Laure's great-uncle, Etienne, who is late to join the resistance after having experienced the horrors of WWI, or any of the other amazing people populating the book, Doerr brings them to life. Reading the book is like taking a journey back to the early 1940s and meeting in person the individuals caught up in the war.

The writing falls away, on one level, as the individuals, their experiences, and the suspense take center stage. On another level, however, the writing is to be savored. The light we cannot see, as in the title, permeates the book. It seems that each page has a reference to light and its beauty. For Marie Laure, her non-seeing experience of the world is accompanied by vivid color. And for Werner, an understanding of radio waves and light as parts of the electromagnetic spectrum brings him to think of all light as invisible. What is seen and what is not seen is intensely important in this book. Just as light is complex, so is ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. The book ends in keeping with that complexity; those looking for a resolution well packaged and tied up with a bow will not find this book to their taste.

Sharon Mensing is the Head of School of Emerald Mountain School, an independent school in the mountains of Colorado, where she lives, reads, and enjoys the outdoors.

Reviewed by Sharon Mensing, July 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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