It happens when I hear the Scottish accent of an old man. Or my hairdresser’s soft, unhurried tone. A gentle cadence like waves, rising and falling, sending tingles over my skin.
All the Light We Cannot See is built around the power of the human voice—particularly, a stranger’s, heard over the radio. On his website, author Anthony Doerr explains the germ for his 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning novel: I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a little girl reading a story to him over the radio. That boy is Werner Pfennig, an orphan who grows up with his younger sister Jutta in the coal-mining town of Zollervein, Germany in the 1930s. That girl is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind and living in Paris near the Natural History Museum where her father works as the locksmith. Doerr alternates chapters between these two characters before they converge in a powerful and beautiful way.
Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo, a small town on the coast of Brittany that the Germans occupied during World War II. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father fled to this small seaside town to live with her great-uncle. With them, they carried the Museum’s most valuable jewel, a pear-shaped stone called the Sea of Flames. Werner ends up in the same town because his knack for fixing radios earns him a spot at a training academy for Hitler Youth, from where he is enlisted to use his skills to track down the resistance.
Against this significant historical backdrop, the fictional Marie-Laure and Werner are nobodies: a blind girl and an orphaned boy. Yet Doerr crafts an epic story (in size and scope) of courage, redemption, and hope through their “miniature” lives. It’s no coincidence that the objects that define Marie-Laure and Werner are small things. Marie-Laure’s father builds her a wooden model of their Parisian neighborhood so she can navigate outside on her own. When they arrive in Saint-Malo, he builds her another model so she can do the same there. This model becomes her lifesaver.
In the orphanage where Werner grows up, he comes across a shabby radio. He pores over textbooks and studies the machine’s smallest innards, but he really falls in love with it when he tunes into a foreign broadcast and hears a Frenchman with a velvet voice talking about science in a way that utterly enchants him. This voice is in danger of being snuffed out though, both physically and metaphorically. It’s not long before listening to foreign broadcasts is illegal. An endless stream of state-sponsored propaganda fills Werner’s ears instead. Only through the hottest fires, whispers the radio, can purification be achieved. But the Frenchman’s voice returns to him at crucial moments: Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever. By contrasting these two voices, Doerr highlights Werner’s inner struggle to do what is right and the fear that often stands in the way.
All the Light We Cannot See reminds us that the tiniest things are extremely powerful. A tiny voice. A tiny model house. A tiny jewel. A tiny radio. A tiny life and tiny actions. Young and feisty Marie-Laure, along with her housekeeper and great-uncle, find small but significant ways to stick a middle finger to the Germans—baking tiny messages into bread, changing road signs to point the wrong direction, delivering flowers to an officer that he is allergic to. Their efforts show the power of many small acts done together that may just make a ripple in the waters.
Werner, on the other hand, demonstrates how easy a life can be subsumed by a system beyond one’s control. He thinks the radio is how he can escape the fate of his father who died working in a coal mine, but his escape leads to imprisonment of a different kind. “It’s just numbers,” his professor routinely tells him. Numbers that lead him roving the countryside for terrorist broadcasts that his herculean crewmember takes out, shot after shot.
Although framed within the grand narrative of war, Anthony Doerr zooms in and tells an exquisitely written tale of two children—what they choose to do, the things chosen for them, and the greyness in between. As Werner’s sister Jutta reflects near the end, “It was not very easy to be good then.” Indeed. But what about all the light we cannot see? What about all the Marie-Laures and Werners, trying to be good? This is the question and the hope Doerr offers, even if it is as tenuous as a voice cutting in and out of static.