All the Light We Cannot See

Cover of novel, white type against waves creating in the ocean under a blue green tinted sky filled with clouds. WWII story fatigue sank me after I completed Hillenbrand’s phenomenal Unbroken, but like a shark,  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr kept circling the deep waters of my To-Be-Read list. Then I heard it featured a blind character named Marie-Laure. I had to discover Doerr’s character development of her. Will she be a tool to fit plot twists neatly in place or will she be more than her blindness. We shall see.

I began reading All the Light We Cannot See, falling into the dreamy world of historical fiction. When done well. a reader finishes a novel with a new-found sense of understanding about a place and time for people who in many ways–especially when separated from trends and fashion and other exterior embellishment–are just like us. When not done well, I abandon the book.  I finished the book.

It held my attention with suspense. Doerr maintains this by building a calculated structure. Short chapters bounce the reader between character viewpoints. There’s a few chronological leaps which confused me as I listened to the audiobook, but not enough for me to be lost. Doerr expertly pairs the A-B-A-B structure with exquisite description of sympathetic characters folded in the drama of war. It’s easy to understand how this book became a best-seller. Hmmm, will I be writing a film review on this story in the future?

The novel is set mostly in the 1940s as the French walled city of Saint-Malo faced Nazi occupation like Paris, the City of Light. Marie-Laure and her father, who is a locksmith for Paris’s Museum of Natural History and who carves replicas of the neighborhoods they live in for his blind daughter, have fled the capitol and ventured to a relative’s house. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds of Werner, a young German soldier who tracks radio signals.

Woven throughout are thematic mentions of light, transmission, connection, wisdom against the darkness of fear and ignorance. Even the music compliments light. Doerr features Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” within the book and the audiobook opens with the song. With the familiar twinkling notes, I couldn’t help but see one of my favorite movie scenes come to mind, gazing at the Bellagio’s water fountain in Vegas, watching Danny Ocean’s eleven savor the last moments of an exciting adventure together.  Ok. Now get in the house.

Doerr writes with an earnest tone. He allows his main characters to be awed by the interesting people and the majestic world around them, to be filled by a sense of wonder. Electricity and technology fascinates orphaned Werner; science and the ocean and family enthrall Marie-Laure. The absence of a cynical tone is refreshing, reminding me reverent prose need not be cheesy. Each page contains sentences conveying mood. Doerr is not thrifty with words. These words fill you up like a grand dinner out, it’s a treat to devour this costly meal of story. Active verbs flex their literary muscles and we are immersed in this beautiful place even when the destruction reigns, where as bombings occur, “the fires pool and strut. ” and then:

“The appetite for oxygen is such that objects heavier than housecats are dragged into the flames.  Shop signs swing toward the heat from their brackets. A potted hedge comes sliding across the rubble and capsizes. Swifts flushed from chimneys catch fire and swoop like blown sparks out over the ramparts and extinguish themselves in the sea.”

 

Incredible. Doerr ushers sounds and smells alive in the seat of the brain such as,”the sweet slightly chemical scent of gun oil,” “the raw wood of newly constructed shell crates,” “the moth ball odor of old bedspreads.” This evocative style carried the narrative like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch as both writers captured the ability to set a scene with more than visual elements.

Without this enchantment, readers would be bogged down in warfare and perpetual stress with moments of joy impossible. Humans will find a way to escape entrapment. Doerr hits on the desire we all have to connect to others like Werner carefully listening for forbidden transmissions:

“He hears a fizz of static then from somewhere deep inside the earpiece a stream of consonants issues forth.”

 

The joys of being heard and to be free are universal. As I read along, I wondered why the writer, who is not visually impaired, chose to feature a blind character. From the Aspen Public Radio First Draft interview, Doerr explains he wrote Marie-Laure for the literary challenge to focus on other senses instead of the heavily used visual cues. He wanted an academic struggle to overcome and found that within a character who is visually impaired. I looked further into what Doerr says in interviews about blindness and his experience with it. From Goodreads, he says:

“I read lots and lots of memoirs—anything about someone going blind or had been blind, especially somebody who had lost his or her sight as a child. I knew I wanted her to have some visual memory. My son did blindfold me and walk me around downtown Boise, which was actually a sort of harrowing experience, reminding me that you truly are disabled in lots of ways. But primarily just reading: And There Was Light by a guy named Jacques Lusseyran. A writer named Edward Hoagland has this beautiful memoir [Compass Points]. He lost his sight as an older man. He started walking in New York City, and everything he saw was radiant because he knew he wouldn’t see it again. It’s harrowing. Sad.”

 

Yes, blindness can be harrowing and sad to some. However, gaining a visual impairment is not the end of the world. At least I don’t think so.  Everyone faces hardships every day. In junior high, I tried the hurdles on the track team. Running laps around the flat track bored me. My short legs and tight hamstrings held me back from soaring over the barriers and I turned attention elsewhere, yet my eyes have shown I guess I’m a champion hurdler to some people after all.

Over on the Rumpus, Doerr mentioned he wanted to make himself slow down and write scenes in ways besides the visual detail, to “airlift ” oneself into another person’s life. Through a Powell’s interview, I discovered he wrote a short story called The Shell Collector with a blind character, too. Off I went to read it, the ebook available from my library. I moved toward the reef and the sea of the tale like the shell collector, picking my way through sentences, filtering meaning from paragraphs, resting finally on the shoreline of its ending. He certainly can delve into a rich mixture of sound and texture in a scene.

Back to All the Light. In summation of blindness, Doerr wrote within the novel:

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in the shoals through the air.”

 

The book offers peaceful prose, but did not sit gently for long. A few things kept poking my psyche days after I finished reading it. Such as: counting steps to navigate is not effective. I wish that trope would die. Try it. Walk on a clear path from one point to another, counting. Now come back, but this time have people run into you and have loud noises occur around you and answer a few questions as you go. Are you able to count steps and navigate efficiently? Right. Also, why is Marie-Laure counting storm drains? Are the avenues in Paris and Saint-Malo wide enough for cars, cyclists, and pedestrians alike? I assume the concrete joining pavement must be different from the American sidewalks I use because I would have to walk in the street to count storm drains here. Real safe.

Also, while Marie-Laure felt a bit flat to me in her–besides blindness–flawlessness, Werner bothered me. Did Werner irritate me because he was basically complicit with the Nazi rules or did he irritate me because I could see how we tend to protect ourselves first rather than risk our lives for others when under pressure? It’s easier to avoid complicated moral dilemmas, it’s easier to have the straightforward models of evil and good like ruthless Sergeant Major van Rumpel compared to pure Marie-Laure.

Finally, Doerr hints at the Holocaust, but does not focus the story there. Instead he hunkered down in the transactions of the resistance, between the transmissions and connections with strangers, highlighting the tremendous within the mundane rather than weighing the narrative down with more and more despair. On one hand, shouldn’t readers be smart enough to understand the devastation of the Holocaust without being told again? Or do we still need to be reminded of the worst ways of human nature in wicked detail to be authentic? Living in a war zone is no fairytale, yet I was swept up and carried away in the isolated and miraculously connected world Doerr created. When I reached logical land again, I noticed the absences.

Although enjoyable, I don’t plan to retread this book. The initial experience was vivid enough. Instead, I want to see wooden, scaled models of Paris and Saint-Malo. More so, I want to touch them, ceaselessly moving my hands over the buildings and roads like Marie-Laure, to find a way to safety. If nothing else, the novel reminds me to keep hurdling through the world on the page and in reality.

I recommend this book for anyone looking to escape into a suspenseful, wonderful tale from a new perspective. If you enjoy WWII-era books, give it a try. Have you read the Pulitzer-prize winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? Tell me about it.

 

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Trisha says:

    I’ll have to put this on my to-read list! I love WWII era books, although my particular weakness is for ones set in England. It would be interesting for me to branch out to other countries and viewpoints in my reading!

    1. Any book recommendations Trisha?

      1. Trisha says:

        No, I haven’t read anything good in a long time. I need to get out to an actual bookstore. It’s so convenient to borrow ebooks from the library but really hard to find anything good that way. The person who purchases their ebooks has a fondness for bodice-busting romances, which are just not my thing.

  2. Susan, what a thoughtful and interesting review. I very much enjoyed this novel but found it difficult sometimes to follow its structure on audio. I can see why Doerr chose a blind character and think he evoked the sensual aspects of pleasure and fear admirably, particularly when Marie Laureis trapped in the cupboard in the house in St Malo. I was not clear about what you were saying about holocaust writing but must admit I have forgotten some of Doerr’s views on this. As for Werner, I believe any opposition he might have put up to the Nazis would have been a futile gesture. All in all it was refreshing to read a novel not dependent on a publisher’s remit. An original and interesting picture of WW2 in France. The tragedy of war was underlined by the fact that, in the end, it was the allies who destroyed St Malo. For anyone liking war novels set in England (and the moral dilemmas faced by individuals) I recommend William Brodrick’s The Sixth Lamentation. Great review…thank you.

    1. Great comments, Bridget. Yes, Marie-Laure’s parts were more compelling to me because of how Doerr captured emotion and action for her. I will have to look up that book you recommended, it sounds good.

  3. Joy says:

    We have a lot of the same tastes in books and podcasts! I read this book last year and got really into it. I love Doerr’s writing. I, too, looked up interviews by him, but you found some interesting snippets I hadn’t, including reading the short story, which I’ll have to check out! Great review Susan!

    1. Thanks, Joy. I was on the hunt to get meaning right from Doerr rather than make assumptions. There were more interviews than I expected to find. He sounds like an earnest person.

  4. While I am not a fan of genre, your review is very insightful. I found the following bit so enticing that I want to learn more about the author: “These words fill you up like a grand dinner out, it’s a treat to devour this costly meal of story. Active verbs flex their literary muscles and we are immersed in this beautiful place even when the destruction reigns,” Thank you for such an eloquent review, you have piqued my curiosity.

    1. Thank you! The book truly swept me away at times.

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