ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Anthony Doerr. Scribner, 530 pp., $27.
I'm not sure I will read a better novel this year than Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See." Enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears, it is completely unsentimental -- no mean trick when you consider that Doerr's two protagonists are children who have been engulfed in the horror of World War II.
One is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind daughter of the widowed master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Shy but courageous and resourceful, Marie-Laure has learned to navigate the streets of her quartier with the help of a wooden scale model made by her father. He also sharpens her mind by hiding birthday gifts in intricate puzzle boxes that he carves. She's fascinated by the marine specimens she's allowed to handle in the museum, and entranced by the imagined world she explores in her Braille edition of Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."
But she's filled with uneasiness by another of the museum's treasures, a priceless blue diamond called the Sea of Flames, which allegedly endows its keeper with the gift of eternal life and curses all he loves with unending misfortune. "I want to believe that Papa hasn't been anywhere near it," Marie-Laure says.
When the Nazis invade France in 1940, she and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to take refuge with her great-uncle Etienne. Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, her father has been entrusted with the Sea of Flames -- or one of three copies -- all of which must be hidden from the Germans. He conceals it in a model he makes of Etienne's house and street in Saint-Malo. But shortly thereafter, he is arrested by the Germans and disappears. Soon, a Nazi treasure-hunter sets out on the trail of the Sea of Flames.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan with a preternatural understanding of circuitry, comes of age in the coal-mining town of Zollverein. When he and his sister Jutta find a broken shortwave radio, Werner repairs it. Turning the dial, they hear a mysterious Frenchman talking about science: "What do we call visible light?" the Frenchman asks. "We call it color. But ... really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible." Werner is as entranced by this lesson as Marie-Laure is by the writings of Jules Verne.
His passion for science and gift for radio mechanics earn him a place at a nightmarish training school for the Nazi military elite and, when he graduates, in the German army, where he proves adept at finding the senders of illegal radio transmissions.
His path and Marie-Laure's converge in 1944, when Allied forces have landed at Normandy and Werner's unit is sent to Saint-Malo. Doerr achieves this convergence and the other wonders of this book by creating a structure as intricate as any model made by Marie-Laure's father. Cutting back and forth in time, he creates nearly unbearable suspense. Then Doerr twists the puzzle-box once more to bring his novel into the present. One of his contemporary characters imagines the electromagnetic waves coursing into and out of computers and cellphones, carrying with them the quotidian communications that make up our lives. "Is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths?" she asks, lamenting that "every hour, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."
In this book -- because of this book -- those people do not disappear, but only become a part of the light that we cannot see.