My suspicion is that Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See, thought of Saint Malo first. Saint Malo is a walled city on a promontory along the French coast, jutting out into the English channel, and known as the “jewel of the Normandy coast.” In 1944, it was the last German-held city in Normandy to surrender to the Allies, and as a result, it was the victim of an extensive bombing campaign that destroyed nearly all of the city’s historic buildings. Much of the novel’s action takes place in its streets and houses, and I would not be surprised to learn that Doerr decided he wanted to write a book about Saint Malo before even coming up the characters or plot.
Which is fine, because the city almost becomes a character unto itself. But there are three main human characters, and the novel follows their intertwining life paths from 1934 to 1944, although not chronologically. This is one of those puzzle box stories, with the action jumping between chapters from 1934 to 1938, say, or 1944 to 1936, or whenever. It’s a credit to Doerr’s immense writing skills that this is not all that confusing; indeed, it feels fairly natural.
The first character is Marie-Laure, who at the age of six in 1934 is recovering from a fever that has left her blind. Her father is the locksmith for the Paris Museum of Natural History, and when Germany invades France in 1940, the head of the Museum entrusts Marie-Laure’s father with the its most precious possession: the Sea of Flames, a huge, perfect diamond said to give its owner immortality, but to curse everyone around him. Marie-Laure and her father flee to her uncle’s house in Saint Malo, where she lives for the rest of the war.
The second character is Werner, a German orphan in a coal mining town near Essen whose genius with mathematics and radio equipment gets him recruited by Schulpforta, an exclusive German military school. In 1942, at the age of sixteen, he is conscripted into the Wehrmacht and joins a signals unit, using his skills to track down Russian partisans who are broadcasting the locations and schedules of German trains and military units with shortwave radios. Although he is brilliant at his job, Werner hates the violence and killing it entails. Eventually, his unit is transferred to Normandy, where a rogue shortwave broadcaster in the vicinity of Saint Malo is aiding the resistance.
The final character is Sergeant-Major von Rumpel, a German officer with a background in gemology, who is tracking treasures across the conquered territories to bring to the Reich. After France falls, he hears rumors of a huge diamond at the Natural History museum in Paris, but when he investigates the situation, he finds the director of the museum has given the real diamond, along with three fakes, to four museum employees who have fanned out across France. He spends the rest of the war trying to track down the genuine diamond.
Naturally enough, these three characters meet in Saint Malo in August 1944, as the Allies are overrunning northern France and the city is holding out despite the vicious Allied bombing. Marie-Laure, as a blind teenager, is especially vulnerable, and is left to fend for herself when the housekeeper dies, her father is arrested as a spy, and her uncle disappears a few days before the bombing starts. She is highly intelligent and has learned to navigate the city in ways sighted people cannot, however, and whether that is enough to protect herself and the precious diamond she carries creates the tension through the final portion of the book.
This book is so beautifully written and Marie-Laure and Werner are so sympathetic that I would love to recommend this book to everybody. I can’t quite do that, though, because the truth is, All the Light We Cannot See is very dense, with lots of untranslated German and French words and phrases, in addition to the already-mentioned time jumps. So I can recommend it to those with time or patience for a more challenging read, and to those, I recommend the book heartily.