by Sharon Peters)
A blind, motherless French girl whose father builds her miniatures of the neighborhoods she cannot see.
A platinum-haired German orphan whose genius with numbers and radios draws the attention of the Nazis while he's still just a boy.
The chief characters in All the Light We Cannot See are decidedly unusual protagonists. And the intersection of their lives in war-gripped France in the 1940s is nothing short of improbable.
And yet, this tough-to-put-down book by Anthony Doerr proves its worth page after lyrical page as young Marie Laure, in the company of her father and a mysterious gem, flees Paris to take up residence in her troubled uncle's seaside home, and young Werner is indoctrinated by the Nazis.
Few authors can so gently — yet resolutely — pull readers into such deep understanding of and connection with their characters. Each and every person in this finely spun assemblage is distinct and true. All, even the most heroic and likable, are flawed in some way, as real people are (and people in novels often are not). Most are utterly unforgettable, long after the last page has been turned.
And Doerr's descriptions — of battlefields, mangled cellars, windswept beaches and musty, narrow passages— are exquisitely full-bodied. One can almost smell the fear in the sweat and the damp on the wind; one can almost see the slate of the sky or the wistfulness in a smile.
There are reality-stretching turns in this story, but that doesn't extinguish the essential power of the tale.
The most significant thread of the plot line is as thin as a dragonfly wing. That is of little consequence.
And, exasperatingly, the author shifts often back and forth in time, jerking readers, just at the point they're completely ensnared in the moment, back to a time years earlier or forward to a time much later.
But even that is not enough to douse interest in seeing these characters through to the end.
All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 530 pp.
*** out of 4
Sharon Peters is author of Trusting Calvin: How A Dog Helped Heal a Holocaust Survivor's Heart.