Europe during World War II is the setting of many novels and it’s really no surprise. Such horror, fear, and devastation create an environment ripe for personal conflicts, long odysseys, and overcoming trials on an unimaginable scale. And, as with anything, there are novels that use this setting to their advantage and others that fall flat. Anthony Doerr’s latest work, All the Light We Cannot See, works with the period very well and you would do well to check it out.
For the most part, the novel intertwines the stories of two young individuals from different sides of the conflict. There is Marie-Louise, the visually-impaired daughter of the locksmith and keeper of keys for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Her father’s position aides in her curiosity about the natural sciences and she loves to read Jules Verne. Before the occupation of Paris, she is forced to flee with her father to Saint-Malo and there is the possibility that they are carrying one of the Museum’s most prized possessions. Or is it a decoy? Marie-Louise’s story is paired with Werner’s, a German orphan with an innate understanding of radios and radio frequency. His ability opens the door for him to attend an elite military school to work on special radio projects and prepare for working with radio units in the field. Of course, this leads him to Saint-Malo on a mission to find French resistance fighters using radio transmissions, right before the allies began a bombing campaign on the port city.
There are many surprising links between Marie-Louise and Werner before this Saint-Malo connection and Doerr reveals them skillfully. I also appreciated how Doerr played with time in the narrative, starting with the bombing of Saint-Malo and weaving in the back story steadily. Many novels work this way, but his was well-paced and structured.
I recommend placing a hold on All the Light We Cannot See, but if you need something to read right now, check out some other solid World War II fiction: Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge or David Benioff’s City of Thieves.