—He leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole. “End of tour,” he says. A girl says, “But what’s through there?” “Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.” “And what’s behind that?” “A third locked door, smaller yet.” “What’s behind that?” “A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.” The children lean forward. “And then?” “Behind the thirteenth door”—the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands—“ is the Sea of Flames.”
Anthony Doerr in his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner brings us the parallel stories of two main protagonists whose paths cross in Normandy in 1944, Marie-Laure, a young girl living with her father, the locksmith at the Natural History museum in Paris and Werner Pfennig, an orfan living in a mining town Zollverein in the Ruhr and why Werner has for a mission to find and eliminate her but does not.
Marie-Laure, as a young girl goes blind and her doting but meticulous father builds her a 3 dimensional scale model of their quartier so that she can go anywhere in this quartier and get back home. In the museum is the mysterious Sea of Flames, a most valuable jewel, hidden as described in the opening quote behind thirteen locks whose legend says:
—The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.
In Zollverein Werner and his sister, Jutta are brought up in their austere orphanage after their father is killed in a mining accident and his body never recovered, by a French mother-tongue nun, Werner is gifted with radios, can build and repair them from a young age and one night Werner and his sister tune into a far off broadcast in french:
—The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism;
Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?
For the children of the orphanage there is no way out, the orphanage raises the children and all boys from the age of fifteen “without exception” will go down the mine.
The story is built from these foundations, Werner is recognised for his key and necessary radio skills, sent to an elite Hitler youth school where he designs, manufactures and then operates, in the field during the war, radio emitter detection devices and his team then mercilessly kill the operators. Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris during the invasion carrying one of four copies of the Sea of Flames for which one is the original. Anne-Laure spends the war with her reclusive uncle who before the war emitted captivating stories not knowing if he had listeners and during the war emitted for the resistance but unable to resist putting something of his pre-war broadcasts into his performance, whilst Anne-Laure picked up the messages to be broadcast.
And yes of course this particular radio is the point of intersection of their stories and under the allied threat and then attack of Saint Malo, Werner does the right thing.
This is an exceptionally well researched story with a necessary touch of fantasy, its pages are filled with thousands of details, it has however left me pining as a reader for something akin to the French mouvement of the past, La Nouvelle Vague for films, or maybe Punk for music, that is to say the risk of wing and a prayer writing or maybe just not using computers. I feel a little like a consumer, somebody has done all the work for me
First published in English as ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Scribner in 2014