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book review

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

Mother nature is brutal, but she rewards her survivors with beauty. Under the earth’s surface, for instance, where the dead go, magma can rise and mix with pressure to create gemstones of astonishing beauty.

We have been mining these stones for thousands of years. Even the Egyptian dynasties knew the past’s graveyard can contain grace.

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In his remarkable new novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” Anthony Doerr performs a similar act of extraction with more recent history. Set during World War II, it tells a story about what lies beneath the visible world.

The book revolves around a 133-carat gem of staggering beauty. It is called the Sea of Flames, and legends say possessing it bestows upon its owner immortality — and a curse. Loved ones will die; luck combusts. Even its most powerful handlers have tossed it back into the sea.

In the early part of “All the Light We Cannot See,” the gem has wound up at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. It is 1934. Daniel LeBlanc, the museum’s master locksmith, has designed its protective case with ingenuity and humor. These are also the skills he uses to care for his daughter, Marie-Laure, who has been left blind at the age of 6 because of a congenital condition.

Daniel begins his daughter’s lessons in how to live without sight by designing puzzles for her to solve. Then he moves on to Braille and from there to guiding her to and from the museum. She counts steps, manhole covers, learns how to smell the difference between one street and another. She makes many mistakes, but Daniel remains patient.

In sections that jump forward and back in time, Doerr conjures Marie-Laure’s childhood with her sharp remaining senses. “Cars splash along streets, and snowmelt drums through runnels; she can hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees. She can smell the cedars in the Jardin de Plantes.”

Across the border in Germany, a young boy named Werner Pfennig grows up in an orphanage with a sister and a precocious interest in radios. He tunes into musical broadcasts from France and uses his skills — when asked — to fix small, broken appliances. When he repairs a Nazi’s radio, he earns himself a scholarship to a school that will point him directly into the path of the coming war.

The neat symmetry of Marie-Laure and Werner’s childhoods — one spent in darkness, the other exploring sound — would seem too obvious a mirror in another writer’s hands. Doerr, however, has packed each of his scenes with such refractory material that “All the Light We Cannot See” reflects a dazzling array of themes.

One of them involves possession and its dangers. During the novel, Hitler rises to power, overreaches, attempting to acquire all of Europe, and begins sowing the seeds of his own downfall. A sinister gem collector named Von Rumpel enters the narrative, chasing the Sea of Flames, which Daniel may possess as he and Marie-Laure flee to Brittany.

The book also orbits around the nature of sacrifice. When Marie-Laure and her father depart Paris, Daniel tucks the gem — or its double — in his bag. His real purpose, however, is bringing his daughter to safety. When he is later captured, his interrogators have no idea how little he has to lose. He has already secreted his most precious possession: his love.

Meanwhile, in Germany Werner is being raised by Nazis to sacrifice himself in the name of the Third Reich. But he is not a believer in their cause. Step by step he acquires the scientific and navigational skills that he will later use to heartbreaking and heroic effect.

Doerr is the author of one novel, “About Grace,” and two collections of stories, one of which, “Memory Wall,” won the Story Prize. Until this book, he has proven far more successful at the gem-cutter’s art of short fiction. In the longer form his sentences became a fogging lens rather than an illuminating one.

As far as World War II novels go, “All the Light You Can See” follows some of the usual pathways — love and greed are the magnetizing poles of its compass — but its language feels startlingly fresh. Doerr has retooled his sentences into short bursts of sensory information.

He has also turned his skill at compression and miniaturization to creating metaphorical pivot points. In one of the book’s most moving set pieces, Marie-Laure’s father builds a scale model for his daughter of the Brittany town where they hope to wait out the war. If she should be left behind, she will still have his handiwork to guide her to safety.

In page after page, he allows simple details to say much. “Most of the time Werner rides backward,” he writes about the boy, now grown into a soldier riding in the back of a truck, “looking at land they are leaving.” He allows the human gaze its original purpose — not acquisition, but pattern-recognition, appreciation, orientation.

“What mazes there are in this world,” Marie-Laure thinks in the final days of her confinement during the Allied siege of her town in Brittany. “The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models . . . None more complicated than the human brain.”

By the time the narrative finds Marie-Laure and Werner in the same German-occupied village in Brittany, a reader’s skepticism has been absolutely flattened by this novel’s ability to show that the improbable doesn’t just occur, it is the grace that allows us to survive the probable.

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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