‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?

“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking this way.”

Our commenter Paul suggested Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to me, as a work with similarities to Mark Helprin’s Paris In the Present Tense, which I reviewed with approval. And it is indeed reminiscent of that work, not least in its French locations. It’s one of those heady books that I’m not sure I understood, but I enjoyed it as an experience.

The book is told out of sequence, beginning with the Allied bombing of the French coastal city of Saint-Malo in 1944. We are shown, within that city, two people – a blind girl named Marie-Laure, left alone in their house by her guardian grand-uncle, and a German radio operator named Werner Pfennig, sheltering in the cellar of a hotel. Through the story that follows, we learn the events that brought these two people into proximity. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the Master of Locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. By chance, he is entrusted at the beginning of the war with a precious stone, a legendary treasure said to have healing powers. That stone becomes the obsession of a dying Nazi officer, who systematically follows their trail.

In a smoky mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in an orphanage, destined for a short, backbreaking life laboring underground. He finds and repairs a broken radio, beginning a lifetime of fascination with electronics, and listening with his sister to mysterious late-night broadcasts about science, in the French language. It looks as if his life is saved when he’s recruited for an elite school run by the Nazi Party – but it turns out to be as deadly as the mines, in a more profound way.

Werner builds a device that triangulates radio signals, enabling the Nazis to locate illegal radio transmitters. The idea of triangulation seems (to me) to be a theme of the book. A kind of triangulation of events brings Werner and Marie-Laure together, eventually, for one magical moment. And then the world resolves once more into the static of war. I’m not sure what All the Light We Cannot See means. It seemed to me, in its final resolution, too modern for my tastes. But it was a fascinating and beautiful book to read.

Cautions for language, tragedy, and mature themes.

3 thoughts on “‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr”

  1. Thought you’d like it. On a French binge one could do worse than checking out–and I do from my local library-the American writer Martin Walker’s well written Bruno Chief of Police series, now up to about ten in number. Content to stay in a rural setting Bruno enjoys hunting, gardening, gourmet food, having a host of colorful friends and associates, finding time to solve some complex cases that would baffle even the big city police.

  2. I’ve been told that triangulation is a Norwegian trait. A psychologist friend has commented to me that her Norwegian descended neighbors rarely address a topic directly, preferring to address a similar but related topic, hoping the application spills over into the arena they felt would be rude to address directly.

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