Anthony Doerr’s vividly rendered, heartbreaking second novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” opens with a scene of U.S. bombers dropping incendiaries on the German-occupied Saint-Malo, a walled city in the Brittany region of northwestern France. It is perfectly captured chaos reminiscent of the opening pages of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Unlike Thomas Pynchon, though, Doerr writes sentences that are clear-eyed, taut, sweetly lyrical and never elusive.
The story jumps back to 1934, oscillating between Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure. Werner is an orphan doomed to spend his days digging for coal in the mines that loom behind the orphanage where he and his sister Jutta live, in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris, but he’s saved when he finds a radio, takes to tinkering, becomes the neighborhood repairman and pores over books such as “The Principles of Mechanics.” His rare skill leads him to a spot at the National Political Institute, the brutal academy for Hitler Youth.
Marie-Laure grows up in Paris with her father, the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. When Marie goes blind at 6, her father whittles a scale model of the neighborhood and helps her count sewer drains.
When the Germans occupy Paris, the museum goes to great lengths to create decoys of the famously fabled jewel called the Sea of Flames, sending them in different directions — Marie’s father with one — but no one knows who’s carrying the real gem. Marie and her father find shelter in Saint-Malo with Marie’s reclusive great-uncle, who “got a bit of gas in the head” in the first World War, and who lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea. Marie’s great-aunt, Madame Manec, who has a “fairy tale drawl” and clacks about the six-story house in “blocky, heavy shoes,” cloaks the visitors in hospitality and manages to whip up an array of omelets and breads despite depleting resources.
Eventually, Werner and Marie’s stories converge, and Doerr offers up a surprisingly hopeful culmination of events.
Seashells, waves, architecture, the brutal battlements of war, the power of radio, coming of age in the time of war: Doerr connects every seemingly disparate element. Every sentence is an act of compassion. There’s not a fuzzy or lagging moment in the 500-plus pages. Like the title, Doerr’s prose is an unseen force that, over and over, will nudge you to the edge of your chair and leave you breathless. This is a beautiful book, an astounding meditation on the paradoxes of fate, human relationships and nature. Fans of Doerr, rejoice: This might be his best book yet.
Josh Cook is editor at large of Minneapolis-based Thirty Two Magazine.