Thu, 10 May 2018
For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future, which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.
The rich source of ideas that the Second World War gifts to authors seems like a bottomless pit and while I was looking forward to reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I was also a little wary of how yet another tale of the bad Germans and the put-upon French could be played out.
I need not have worried – this is a spellbinding tale of two children, in very different circumstances, caught up in the consequences of war.
German orphan Werner finds an old radio and works out how to use it. He and his sister sit huddled under a blanket, transfixed by the voices talking across the airwaves.
Werner’s ability to fix radios does not go unnoticed and he is whisked off to a German school for the Hitler Youth to be trained as a proficient soldier and to make use of his natural talents.
His story runs concurrently with that of Marie-Laure, a blind girl, who flees Paris with her father and ends up in St Malo, at her uncle Etienne’s house.
Marie-Laure’s father makes her a detailed model of the house they are in and the streets of St Malo, so she can find her way around. He has also been entrusted with the mysterious Sea of Flames, a diamond with mystical powers. The stone, so folklore says, bestows eternal life on the owner, but they lose the people they love around them in the process.
The way the stories of these two children gradually merge is cleverly crafted and although the author messes around with the chronology, which led to some confusion to start with for this reader, I eventually tuned in to the rhythm of the narrative and was totally absorbed in the fate of these two victims of war.
Werner’s rite of passage from innocent young boy, thrilled at being singled out, to disenchanted and troubled teen was brilliantly developed. His time at the military school is riveting. And as with many of the scenes, the secondary characters felt just as real and important as our two main protagonists.
Werner becomes a radio operator, intercepting and ultimately trapping resistance fighters trying to send secret messages across the airwaves. Although it is appalling, you can understand the thrill that a teenager would get from catching the ‘subversives’ and the subsequent recognition. But a sense of wrong pervades and a shocking incident leaves him drained and disillusioned.
When he ends up in St Malo, Werner finally seeks redemption by rescuing Marie Laure from a German officer intent on finding the hidden diamond. The two spend only a short time together before they go their separate ways.
The author then brings you up to date with the fate of these two characters and others. It is the ‘others’ that make this such a rich read – many of the minor characters are drawn so vividly that you care just as much for them and it makes the whole story come to life. In fact, I would say there are many other stories within this book, which Mr Doerr could have developed and turned into novels in their own right.