Last winter, a handful of marbles made international news. They came to light among the belongings of an Amsterdam woman who’d been given them for safekeeping in 1942. Their owner was a playmate preparing to go into hiding from the Nazis, a girl named Anne Frank.
Those faded bits of glass reminded me that the author of that iconic book, The Diary of A Young Girl, had been a child—a hunted, hungry child, to all appearances a victim—who had nevertheless dared to dream and create and perhaps even thrive.
The day I heard about those marbles, I read the final pages of a new novel set in Europe during World War II. It’s called All the Light We Cannot See by Idaho writer and short story master Anthony Doerr. And it, too, reminded me of something important.
The novel centers on Marie-Laure, a girl whose enviable childhood is spent in pre-invasion Paris. She is blind, but her world is not dark. It’s vivid. Her father is a good man made wise by his care for this preternaturally sensitive daughter. He crafts a rich childhood for her. For instance, he builds a scale model of their neighborhood, sort of a three dimensional braille map, then walks his daughter out into the streets day after day so she can try to lead him home. The first time she succeeds, she is 8. She feels him at her back as they reach their building. He grins silently at the sky, then picks her up and swings her, victorious, through the air.
Marie-Laure’s father works in a museum, and the museum collections become her toys and her teachers. She learns early that “To really touch something…is to love it.” As she grows, she hones her senses and imagination until, at 16, she is able to give us this magical vision: “…to shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”
The novel is also about Werner, a German orphan whose childhood is as exposed and malnourished as Marie-Laure’s is sheltered and enriched. Werner is smart and likable, with a startling mechanical aptitude. When he is 8, he finds a broken radio. He studies, then repairs, then improves it until it conjures magical voices—illicit voices from outside Germany—from Rome, Paris, Verona.
Werner’s future is not bright. His drafty two-story orphanage stands in a gray-skied coal mining town. It is “populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines.”
He has been told that at 15 he must descend into those same mines. All the orphanage boys are required to. He has been told it’s an honor to serve Germany in this way.
Growing up in that environment, Werner’s weakness is heartbreakingly understandable. He will do anything to escape his assigned fate, even convince himself that letting the Nazis send him to school does not make him a Nazi.
Werner and Marie-Laure’s separate stories are shaped into chapters as small, dense and polished as marbles, then gathered into two intricately interwoven timelines. In the first, the two are children. In the second they are teenagers on the eve of a major Allied bombing raid, one of the final battles in the war. In this later timeline their paths finally intersect, and although this meeting is constrained by a lifetime of choices—theirs as well as others’—it is also theirs to seize.
I sometimes grow frustrated with complexly plotted novels because they demand that I attend more to weaving their mass of threads into coherence than to enjoying the tapestry, the story itself. But Doerr’s tiny chapters seemed almost to weave themselves. I found myself rereading chapters often, but always for their spare, pitch-perfect grace, never because I had lost a thread.
Beyond the pleasure of watching its story take shape, Doerr’s novel gave me a powerful gift. Like every other book I’ve loved that is set amid the horrors of war, from The Things They Carried to Slaughterhouse Five, All the Light We Cannot See refuses to be about victims. It’s about the necessity of believing, against a preponderance of evidence, that there are none. Doerr has written a modern classic about goodness in the shadow of evil and the beauty that can be wrought by people fighting simply for a chance to thrive.