All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See
A diamond and the invisible waves of radio transmission link together a blind French girl, a German mechanical genius, and a rapacious German treasure hunter in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. As the book's plot unfolds, the three characters circle closer and closer to each other in Saint-Malo, in Brittany, to meet up on a fateful day in August 1944.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her sight at the age of six to cataracts. She learned to make her way around her Paris neighborhood thanks to a scale model her father built and his determination that she would learn to be independent. The two LeBlancs live an ideal life between their apartment and the natural history museum at which M. LeBlanc works. In the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Werner Pfenning—an orghan—discovers he has a talent for machines when he repairs a discarded radio. He tinkers and tinkers and gains a reputation for being able to repair any radio. His skill earns him the dubious honor of a spot at a military school. The curriculum is designed to churn out ideal young Nazis. While Marie-Laure learns how to classify molluscs by touch, Werner learns trigonometry and doubt about what his instructors are trying to teach them.

Saint-Malo, Brittany, France
The third major character, Reinhold von Rumpel, doesn't appear until the end of the first third. Von Rumpel works for the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a taskforce that systematically looted Europe of its cultural and historical treasures. He becomes obsessed with a diamond, the Sea of Flames, that was held by the natural history museum. When the Germans invaded France, the director of M. LeBlanc's museum had three copies made and sent four employees out across the country to keep it safe. None of them known which is the real one. Von Rumpel tracks the couriers down and finds the fakes one by one.

Doerr's stories do not follow a straight line. All the Light We Cannot See tracks back and forth from the siege of Saint-Malo in 1944, back to the late 1930s, to various points in the war. We see Marie-Laure become involved with the French Resistance. We see Werner tasked with using his radio and math skills to find covert radio transmissions from partisans. He is eventually sent to Brittany, where someone is sending out information about German weapon and troop placements. We see von Rumpel, dying of cancer, seeking out the diamond. We also see what happens when all the characters finally meet up in an old house in Saint-Malo, just hours before the Americans arrive.

All the Light We Cannot See is a dizzying, thrilling tale. It bucks nearly all of the conventions of the historical fiction genre by showing us the tentative webs that can link people to each other. There's bad luck and coincidence and pure chance. People make bad choices, then try to do the right thing (or succumb to their madness). There is no larger plan. It's people trying to survive for another day. Doerr writes in an impressionistic way, even Impressionist. All the little details together create a chaotic portrait of France in the  Second World War.

I received a free review copy of this ebook from Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 6 May 2014.

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