Summary and Analysis
PART ZERO: 7 August 1944
All the Light We Cannot See begins during the final year of World War II. Hours before Allied airplanes bomb the French city of Saint-Malo, they drop leaflets that warn the inhabitants to evacuate. The story’s two protagonists, 16-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc and 18-year-old Werner Pfennig, are introduced. Neither of them has evacuated Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure is blind and alone in her great-uncle Etienne’s house. Werner is a soldier in the German army, under orders to stay at a Saint-Malo hotel called “the Hotel of Bees,” where the Germans have set up their headquarters.
As the Allied bombers approach Saint-Malo and sirens wail, Marie-Laure and Werner each prepare for the bombing in their own way. Marie-Laure, instead of taking shelter, manipulates a tiny wooden model of Saint-Malo that her father made for her, revealing a diamond hidden inside it. Meanwhile, Werner takes shelter with two other soldiers in the hotel’s cellar. Outside, the bombing begins.
The novel begins in medias res, a Latin phrase that means “in the middle of things.” The novel intersperses the description of the bombing of Saint-Malo with the characters’ narratives up until this point to mirror the confusion and chaos of the city as the bombing begins. While the narration will eventually explain how Marie-Laure and Werner got to where they are now, Part Zero is intentionally tense and uncertain.
Although both Marie-Laure and Werner know the bombs are coming, neither one flees the city. They appear to be victims of chance—in the wrong place at the wrong time—and helpless against the power of war. This helplessness raises a question that appears repeatedly in the novel: How much power do individuals have to make choices during a war? Could Marie-Laure and Werner have made choices other than the ones they make, or is their fate predetermined by the situations they are in?
Another question this part raises is the nature of “shelter.” Just before the bombs fall, Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s thoughts turn to their respective families, and each seems to find comfort in them. Marie-Laure, who is still in her bedroom and hasn’t physically taken shelter, says her father’s name as she holds the diamond he left for her. Because the stone is rumored to keep alive whoever possesses it, Marie-Laure turns to it both as a substitute for physical shelter and for her father.