All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
(Scribner / Simon & Schuster Audio, 2014)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Zach Appelman)
From Goodreads: "MARIE-LAURE LIVES WITH HER FATHER in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum's most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure's converge."
Almost before 2014 had started, I began to hear buzz about this book from all kind of places. Online, sure, because that's where I hear most book buzz (I am using both 'hear' and 'buzz' figuratively here.) But also from real live people! So I approached it with a little of that 'will it live up to the hype?' trepidation. Well, folks. Although it may just be compounding the hype problem, I can tell you: yep. It really does.
The book is ostensibly about how the stories of blind French girl Marie-Laure and orphan German boy Werner intersect as WWII sends both of them to the same small island off the coast of France. And it is, but more than that, it's about how the intersections of those stories touch the reader. Doerr's descriptive passages tend towards the dreamy - beautiful, a little unreal, transportive. The world as known through Marie-Laure's other senses contribute largely to that dreamy feeling, but Werner is clever about and constantly tinkering with radios, which bring another auditory dimension to the prose. Radios prove to be Werner's ticket out of a grim life working in the coal mines of his hometown, a ticket that, due to his place and time, can lead only into the ranks of the Hitler Youth and, eventually, the German army. Marie-Laure, meanwhile, leaves Paris with her rather old-fashioned locksmith of a father (it's a craft, and elegantly described, but so full of iron skeleton keys and clever woodworking that it doesn't seem to have much room for modernity.) Her father's entrusted with a treasure from the museum where he works, and in trying to keep it and Marie-Laure safe, they end up in the home of his uncle, who's been housebound since the traumas of WWI. They're an unlikely and quite lovable set of characters, but also lovable are Werner and his compatriots, who Doerr works effectively to show as pawns in the larger, crueler games of the Nazi war machine.
I was impressed with Appelman's narration - he's a new-to-me narrator, and I'm always pleased to find new voices to enjoy. It was steady and weighty and the various accents felt natural. I wished for a little more differentiation between character voices at times, but otherwise was happy to let him carry me on this journey across the sea. (Doerr uses the French sea and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues as ongoing reference points, and it felt right to let the narration just wash over me.)