Sunday, July 19, 2015

My review of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is by far the best war-is-hell book I’ve read. The bulk of the novel alternates between pre-war and wartime (1934 to 1944) experiences of two young European “enemies,” German Werner and French Marie-Laure and their families. [The author follows characters who survive the war to 2014, but only as brief wrap-up.]

Although definitely a war story, All the Light We Cannot See is also a multilevel love story. As Hitler’s forces destroy and rip apart, ordinary Germans and French find ways to stay connected. These connections are the beauty of the book.

Image result for all the light we cannot seeBoth Werner and Marie-Laure are exceptional young people. He is a child prodigy in radio rigging and other math, science, and engineering challenges. She also is highly intelligent and resourceful in using her senses of smell, touch, and hearing to compensate for blindness. I won’t reveal here whether they ever meet or not. Werner is part of the German forces occupying Marie-Laure’s country, after all. For Werner, the war, as disturbing as it is, is a way to avoid a lifetime in coal mines, his sure destiny if Hitler’s henchmen hadn’t discovered his talent for fixing radios no one else could fix. For Marie-Laure in Paris and then Saint-Malo, German occupation is a severe survival challenge. To a point, she completely depends on sighted people to protect her; then she is on her own.

Doerr includes the dimension of a hidden priceless jewel with a legendary curse. For me, this jewel mystery is minimal, only a literary device to increase the danger for Marie-Laure. What propels this story into a “best war-is-hell book” category is the youth of Werner and Marie-Laure. Unlike the main characters of Birdsong (by Sebastian Faulks, about World War I) or A Farewell to Arms (by Ernest Hemingway, about World War II), for example, Werner and Marie-Laure are children. They grow up with this war brewing; they hear rumors and sense foreboding in adults around them. They learn whom to trust, which reassurances to rest in. They figure out nuances. They are eager to learn and have the world open to them. Although the world that opens to them as young teens is evil, they find light in the darkness.

The plot of All the Light We Cannot See holds some disappointments for me, and Doerr’s jumping around in time confuses me, but I like his braiding of Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s story lines, though Nazi brutality is hard to read about. Doerr describes everyday hardships for both soldiers and occupied citizens—cold, smoke, hunger, fear, horror, injury, bravery—many on both sides risk their lives for others. I find Doerr’s rich details fascinating and educational. I like his writing style, too.

In this sample description, Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, overcomes his agoraphobia: “Now Etienne hyperventilates. At thirty-four minutes by his wristwatch, he puts on his shoes and a hat that belonged to his father. Stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve. When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago, he tried to make eye contact, to present what might be considered a normal appearance. But the attacks were sly, unpredictable, devastating; they sneaked up on him like bandits. First a terrible ominousness would fill the air. Then any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright. He could not walk for the thundering of his own feet. Little eyeballs blinked at him from the cobblestones. Corpses stirred in the shadows. When Madame Manec would help him home, he’d crawl into the darkest corner of his bed and belt pillows around his ears. All his energy would go into ignoring the pounding of his own pulse.

His heart beats icily in a faraway cage. Headache coming, he thinks. Terrible, terrible, terrible headache.

Twenty heartbeats. Thirty-five minutes. He twists the latch, opens the gate. Steps outside.”

[pages 417, 418 in my hardbound copy]

Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française also details daily hardships for the occupied French people, but her style is more journalistic. Indeed, her novel is fashioned from notes she took as she fled Paris in 1940. On the other hand, Doerr’s storytelling style engages the reader emotionally in the intrigue and also displays natural and relational beauty that can be enjoyed against oppressive odds.

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