I never would have read All the Light We Cannot See without the insistence of my darling husband, and I can’t decide if I’m glad I read it or not. The writing was exceptional, of this I am sure, but the story made me feel uncomfortably sympathetic toward Germans during World War II, and I’m don’t know what to do with that feeling.
Set in the early 1940s (duh), All the Light We Cannot See is told from the perspective of two children growing up in a very depressing, difficult, challenging time in Europe. Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her sight at nine years old, but her father made sure she still led an enriching life, mostly through his employment at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He created intricate puzzles for her so that she could hone her other senses and figure things out without relying on sight, creating skills that would save her life one day. The father-daughter duo must quickly get out of Paris before the Germans occupy it completely, so they seek refuge at Uncle Etienne’s house in Saint-Malo. Etienne is deeply, irrevocably scarred by the first World War, and barely leaves his bedroom let alone his house, but Marie-Laure’s presence finally starts to bring about a real change in him. When her father, Etienne’s brother, attempts to return to Paris but gets sent to a prison camp instead, Marie-Laure and Etienne work together to transmit illegal messages out of Saint-Malo as part of the resistance.
Werner Pfennig passes the time at a German orphanage by fiddling with radios and pursuing other amateur engineering activities with his little sister Jutta. Knowledge of his knack for fixing radios spreads throughout his neighborhood, and when he’s of age he’s recruited to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. This is where the sympathy for Germans (or one particular, fictitious German) starts to come in — not only did Werner have absolutely no choice about his future, he had no idea what Germany’s leaders were doing in other countries, to other countries, he just happened to be very skilled something they saw as valuable. How many others like him were there (in real life)? Still, Werner was trained to become a Nazi. He was trained to use his skills with radios to track and kill enemies. He didn’t do the killing himself, but he found and pointed out who would be destroyed.
One other main character in the story is a diamond, nicknamed the Sea of Flames, one of the largest in the world and rumored to carry a curse: its owner is invincible, but misfortune befalls all of those around him. The famous diamond was locked away in the Museum of Natural History courtesy of Monsieur LeBlanc, and when he and Marie-Laure escape Paris replicas of the diamond are made and sent (along with the real one) in various directions of the world so that the Germans can’t add it to the growing mound of incredible art and history they’re stealing and claiming as their own. In addition to Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s perspectives, we also get glimpses of a German Sergeant Major’s whose sole purpose is finding the Sea of Flames. Everything comes to a head when all four of them end up in Saint-Malo, just as the Allies are ready to bomb it until the Germans surrender, and guess where the diamond is?
This is all told completely out of order, starting with the day of the bombing and flashing back to the late 30s/early 40s when Marie-Laure goes blind/Werner is first in the orphanage and then back to the day of the bombing and so on and so forth. It honestly starts off a little hard to follow (for me anyway), but the last half is can’t-put-it-down suspenseful, so much so that I’m barely giving away any real plot details here. The conclusion, as with many things related to World War II, is horrendously sad, but it’s overall a very interesting perspective on a story that’s been told many times before.