I felt a bit of distance while I was reading All the Light We Cannot See, but by the end I was brought under its spell. It is about a German boy and a French girl who meet briefly during World War II.
Werner is growing up in an orphanage in Germany. He has always been fascinated by how things work, particularly electronics, and he is far advanced of his teachers in math. One day he discovers a broken radio set in the trash and is able to make it work. He and his sister Jutta discover a children’s broadcast from France in which a man explains science topics and plays music. This station delights them for years until it becomes dangerous to listen to under the Nazi regime.
With all his gifts, Werner is slated to work in the mines when he is old enough. He gets an opportunity, though, to attend a technical school. Against Jutta’s advice, as Werner has avoided being pulled into the orbit of Nazi politics, he takes his chance.
Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith employed by a Paris geological museum. At the age of five she becomes blind. Her father teaches her to find her way in their neighborhood by making a model of it, which she learns by feeling her way. She loves spending time at the museum, learning about all its treasures and handling the shells. She also loves reading adventure stories in Braille.
When the Nazis are due to invade Paris, the museum gives four stones to four employees to keep safe. One of them is the museum’s most precious possession, a fabled diamond with a curse attached; the others are fakes. Marie-Laure’s father receives one of them, and the two leave the city, eventually arriving in St. Malo, where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle lives.
The diamond acts as sort of a MacGuffin in this novel. Of course, we are sure who has the real stone.
The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner’s pasts alternate with the bombing of St. Malo in 1944 by the Americans. Werner is trapped with some German soldiers in the basement of a hotel, while Marie-Laure is hiding in her great-uncle’s house from a German officer searching for the diamond.
This novel is beautifully written and shows the hardships of war from both sides of the conflict. Werner struggles with his desire to do what is expected vs. what is the right thing. Marie-Laure tries to resist the chaos of war in other ways. I felt for a long time that the novel would end predictably, but I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by how the ending opened up from a claustrophobic setting to a more universal feeling.