You come away from this book drenched in sensation: the taste of brine, the smell and feel of cold seawinds, the rough shells of whelks, the intricate detail of tiny wooden models under your fingers, the unevenness of cobbles underfoot and of stone walls and iron railings against your hand, the touch of a hand on your head, the sound of guns and bombs. This is the world of the blind girl Marie-Laure, one of the two central characters. And then there is another world that cannot be seen, the world of electricity and radio waves, the world of Werner Pfennig, the orphan boy who teaches himself about this unseen universe by scavenging broken-down radios from rubbish tips.
Electricity, Werner is learning, can be static by itself. But couple it with magnetism and suddenly you have movement – waves. Fields and circuits, conduction and induction. Space, time, mass. The air swarms with so much that is invisible! How he wishes he had eyes to see the ultraviolet, eyes to see the infrared, eyes to see the radio waves crowding the darkening sky, flashing through the walls of the house. (58)
Werner’s sensitivity to radio frequencies parallels Marie-Laure’s sensitivity to touch, smell and sound. Both of them exist in a heightened world of rich communication and both of them, because of that, have a slightly other-worldly quality, as if they understand human behaviour more clearly than most. Isolated individuals, they make us aware of the preciousness of the individual human capacity to take in the world and to decide how to act in it.
The sky is darkening for everyone as Hitler comes to power in Germany and moves unstoppably on to the occupation of France. Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for refuge with an old uncle in St Malo. Werner, meanwhile, has been putting his skills to use in the German army, tracking down resistance radio operators in the occupied countries. He puts aside his qualms about the morality of what he is doing, seduced by his own skill and its power to raise him from his poverty-stricken childhood and save him from a life in the coal mines. Finally, the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner come together in St Malo as the Allies pound the town to break the last German resistance and Werner’s assignment is to find the person broadcasting information to the Allies.
The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, and the turbulent times they live through, would make the book absorbing in the hands of any competent writer. Doerr is far more than that. Like a piece of music, the book weaves its themes of vision, intuition, hope and yearning. It illuminates and celebrates the human intellect and the human senses, including the sixth sense. When Werner is very young he and his sister hear a faraway, unknown Frenchman’s voice crackling through his salvaged radio with this message, one that can stand as a metaphor for the whole book:
“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children… It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with colour and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light build for us a world full of light?…. Open your eyes…and see what you can do with them before they close forever”,
and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat travelling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the hoses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility. (49)
Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see (Fourth Estate, 2014)