There are books that we stumble upon, some that we choose, and others that seem to have chosen us.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See falls into the latter category, for me. Everything about it made it irresistible: its title, its beautiful cover image of the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, and the promise of the story itself― an orphaned German boy, a blind French girl, the Nazi Occupation of France, a legendary jewel named The Sea of Flames, the science of radio waves and signal triangulation, the writings of Darwin and Jules Verne, all coming together against the backdrop of war, indoctrination into the Hitler Youth, unconscionable violence and historical inevitability.
And then, there was the fact that it kept popping up on websites and booklists (most recently, the New York Times Sunday Review 10 Best Books of the Year). And so I bought a copy. Hardcover! Thinking: Oh well, I can lend it out; it will at least be sturdier.
Doerr’s novel is a wonder. His prose is lyrical, though his sentences are short. His story is expansive, though it is told in chapters that rarely extend beyond four pages. His characters are as improbable as they are fully-formed and believable. It flows very naturally, though it moves back and forth between 1934 and 1945, then to 1974, then, finally, to 2014. And while all of the strands of his intricate plot eventually come together, the tale never feels predictable.
I loved this book. I traveled through its five-hundred plus pages like a tourist under the spell of a new country, wishing it were possible to extend my stay.
All of the characters in the novel are affecting or memorable in some way, though at its heart, All the Light We Cannot See is about Marie-Laure Leblanc, the blind French girl whose widower father, Daniel Leblanc, is the locksmith at Paris’ Museum of Natural History; and about Werner Pfennig, whom we first encounter at Children’s House, in Zollverein, Germany, an orphanage where he is living with his sister Jutta, and which is run by the benevolent Frau Elena.
From the very first pages of the novel, we know that both Marie-Laure and Werner will be in Saint-Malo, in August 1944, when much of the old city was bombed and burned to ash. As the novel moves back and forth in time, we find out how and why this is so.
Werner’s life is set on a different path because of his admittance―he is a mathematical and scientific wunderkind―to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, Germany.
The trajectory of Marie-Laure’s life is dramatically altered when she and her father are forced to flee occupied Paris, eventually winding up in Saint-Malo, in the ramshackle, six-story house of Daniel’s brother, Etienne Leblanc, a fragile veteran of the Great War, who suffers from the effects of PTSD and has become agoraphobic.
There are many beautifully crafted set pieces in the novel, but for me, Anthony Doerr is at his most lyrical when depicting the goings on in Uncle Etienne’s house. Take, for instance, the following scene:
Etienne Leblanc has emerged from his brokenness and begun relaying encoded information for the Resistance from the transmitter hidden on the 6th floor of his house in Saint-Malo. It is extremely risky. He will be shot if found out. He has taken to accompanying his transmissions with the music of Debussy (especially Clair de Lune), Ravel, Massenet, Charpentier or Vivaldi. Marie-Laure, who is roughly 13, accompanies him. She has spent most of the war, so far, trapped inside the house, for reasons of safety. The date is August, 1942:
“The violins spiral down, then back up. Etienne takes Marie-Laure’s hand and together, beneath the low, sloping roof―the record spinning, the transmitter sending it over the ramparts, right through the bodies of the Germans and out to sea―they dance. He spins her; her fingers flicker through the air. In the candlelight, she looks of another world, her face all freckles, and in the center of the freckles those two eyes hang unmoving like the egg cases of spiders. They do not track him, but they do not unnerve him, either; they seem almost to see into a separate, deeper place, a world that consists only of music.”
[…] The song plays on. He lets it go too long. The antenna is still up, probably dimly visible against the sky; the whole attic might as well shine like a beacon. But in the candlelight, in the sweet rush of the concerto, Marie-Laure bites her lower lip, and her face gives off a secondary glow, reminding him of the marshes beyond the town walls, in those winter dusks when the sun has set but isn’t fully swallowed, and big patches of reeds catch red pools of light and burn―places he used to go with his brother, in what seems like lifetimes ago.
This, he thinks, is what the numbers mean.
The concerto ends. A wasp goes tap tap tap along the ceiling. The transmitter remains on, the microphone tucked into the bell of the electrophone as the needle traces the outermost groove. Marie-Laure breathes heavily, smiling.”
This scene is sad, and lovely, and sensual, and ominous. It feels at once otherwordly and very real. In its juxtaposition of the sublime and the beautiful with the ugly, base and constant threat of the enemy just outside the door, Anthony Doerr’s novel shows us the full spectrum of what it means to be human in a time of war.
“Love is not consolation. It is light.”
― Simone Weil