Review: All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr
See the Light through Superb Writing with Profound Lessons!
If I could give “All The Light We Cannot See” more than five stars, I would. I read this amazing book on Kindle and listened to it on Audible, as well. BTW the narrator on Audible, Zach Appelman, is really excellent. His ability to pronounce the French and German names, his articulation and his pregnant pauses really added to the reading of this book.
Anthony Doerr’s book is simply stunning. Dazzling is a good word for it. I have reviewed many other books and have sometimes said this or that writer writes fluidly and well. I have given five stars to quite a few writers. “All The Light We Cannot See” is a higher level of excellence that not many authors achieve. No wonder Anthony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with this book!
The chapters are short and beautifully written. I could say “beautifully and elegantly painted”; they remind me of a painting. This book is poetic, creative, imaginative and historically enlightening as well. Science and technology, it’s fascination and the power to help or harm, is explored along with the characters’ thoughts and feelings; we learn about their courage or lack of and why they make their individual decisions during the rise of Hitler and on into World War II. The descriptions are incredibly sensitive and vivid. Objects are palpable; I could see and feel them. The book pulled me in so much that I was part of each scene. The poignant images remained with me and made the characters come alive.
The author skillfully writes using a juxtaposition of events in the life of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and that of a German boy, Werner Pfennig. Towards the end of the book their lives meet.
Marie-Laure, the blind French girl, lives with her father in Paris. She became blind at 6 years old due to congenital cataracts. She has developed her other senses, namely, hearing, touch and smell to compensate for her loss of sight. In her imagination, she can see colors when she uses her other senses to explore her world. Her father carves wooden replicas of all the buildings in Paris for her to learn to find her way home by herself. He is a very devoted and loving father and teaches her independence but promises her he will always be there for her and will never leave her. He is the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure, who is a curious and bright child, goes with him to work and studies paleontology, archeology, geology and other branches of science with Dr. Gefford, while her father works.
The boy, Werner, lives in an orphanage, “Children’s House” in Zollverein, Germany. The children in the orphanage are very close to starving. A good deal of the population is very poor and not getting enough to eat. When Hitler comes to power, the economy improves dramatically. People are getting more food (meat even) and new appliances. The German population is inundated with radio propaganda. Only state supported German radio channels are allowed. The German population is brainwashed. The people think Hitler is helping them climb out of poverty, build a better society and take pride in their Country again.
Yet the future looks bleak to Werner. Nazi officials tell the boys in the orphanage that they will all have to work in the coalmines when they turn 15 years of age. Werner’s father had died in the coal mines, and Werner is not happy with the prospect of being underground in the dark pit of the mines. After finding a broken radio in the city trash, Werner gets it working. His fascination with radios and his skill in fixing them gives him a chance to escape the coal mines and go to paramilitary school. He has a chance to pursue his interest in radio technology and contribute to the new Germany. He visualizes a glorious future.
In the attic at the orphanage, Werner and his sister Jutta had listened to foreign radio stations that were illegal under Nazi rule. A French radio station with science lectures fascinated them. How magical it was to hear a voice from afar, transmitted through the air! Jutta liked a program on magnets. Werner liked the program on light. “What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” The radio was a symbol of freedom for them both, the freedom to learn and dream.
Before he leaves for school, however, Werner smashes the radio. He does not want anything to interfere with his chance for what he thinks will be a better life. Listening to foreign radio stations is illegal and dangerous. Jutta, a free spirit with a strong moral compass, feels betrayed. She thinks her brother is turning into a cold, brutal Nazi like Hans and Herribert, two older boys in the orphanage who have joined the brown-shirted Hitler Youth. She insists that the broadcasts from the foreign radio stations say the Germans are committing atrocities, just the opposite of what they hear on the state-owned German stations.
Werner gets caught up with his study of radios and blocks out the brutality around him at school. Despite his lack of courage to go against the dictates of his German superiors, the reader can see his conflict and the goodness in him that he wants to embrace. His friend, Frederick, a bird-lover and dreamer, is called the “weakest” by the field commander but shows his courage by refusing to participate in the brutal death of a prisoner. Frederick pays for it by being beaten so badly that he becomes no more than a living vegetable.
With the invasion of Paris in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast and find refuge with Marie-Laure’s great uncle, Etienne. Again her father observes and measures the buildings of this new city and carves a wooden replica of all 865 buildings. Unfortunately, his efforts cause suspicion, and he is arrested on his way back to Paris on an errand for the Museum of Natural History. He is convicted of “theft and conspiracy” and sent to a prison in Germany. Feeling abandoned but gathering her inner strength, Marie-Laure continues to live with her great uncle, Etienne, and his housekeeper Madame Manec. Madame Manec starts working for the French Resistance and Marie-Laure takes over some of her activities when the housekeeper becomes ill. Upon Madame Manec’s death from pneumonia, Etienne gets his courage up and joins the French Resistance.
Werner finds himself caught up in the brutality with no way to escape. His skill in detecting enemy radio transmissions results in many deaths, some of them innocent civilians. He is haunted by the deaths, especially that of one little girl in Vienna who reminded him of his sister, Jutta. Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to find the source of the radio transmissions of the French Resistance. He finds Marie-Laure’s broadcasts, but does not expose her. He recognizes the radio programs that had inspired him so much as a child. When he hears her voice saying that someone is in her house and is going to kill her, he vows to save her if he can reach her in time. Werner finds her and saves her life. The Americans are bombing the town, but during a lull, he helps her escape Saint-Malo.
Intertwined with the lives of our two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, fairytale and reality collide. The legend of the “Sea of Flames”, a 133 carat diamond said to be the intended gift of the Goddess of the Earth to the God of the Sea, parallels the calamities the characters experience in their lives. It was said that the person who had the diamond would live forever, but those he loved around him would die. If the stone were returned to the sea, the curse would be lifted.
Especially during the bombing of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and Werner both draw parallels to their own predicaments and Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. Trapped in the basement of the Hotel of Bees in Saint-Malo, Werner listens to Marie-Laure’s broadcasts of the science programs and music that had been recorded by her deceased grandfather. He thinks of Captain Nemo being trapped under the sea in the Nautilus. Werner and his fellow German soldier, Volkheimer, have run out of food and water and have very little air. “Who could possibly calculate the minimum time required for us to get out? Might we not be asphyxiated before the Nautilus could surface?” Are more monsters awaiting them when they do surface?
Marie-Laure is trapped in her uncle Etienne’s secret attic room where he had broadcast codes for the French Resistance. Down below is an intruder, the Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel. He is there to find the “Sea of Flames” diamond, which her father hid in the wooden house replica of her great uncle’s house. Instead of giving it to the Reich for Hitler’s dream museum in Linz, Austria, he wants to have the enchanted diamond to cure his cancerous tumor. He is dying, and he believes the diamond will save his life. Marie-Laure has not had food for two days and has had no water for one and a half days. She starts to think maybe this Nazi will spare her life if she gives him the diamond. Maybe the curse would end and her father would come back. Not trusting her safety, however, she has a knife handy. She thinks of Captain Nemo when he said to Ned Land, the Canadian harpooner, “But let me tell you that if we’re caught, I’m going to defend myself, even if I die doing it”.
There are many levels to this book and much to think about. The reader can get many insights into the human condition and why someone like Hitler could take over Germany and spread his sickness into so many other countries. The book is well researched and taught me a good deal about how it was to grow up in Germany when Hitler came to power. Additionally, I could understand more concretely how it was for the French when France was invaded by Hitler’s armies. Good historical fiction brings all these events to life. Anthony Doerr brings a powerful humanism to the events in World War II. He made the characters come alive for me. This is a book to ponder, reread and treasure. The author brings an incredible immediacy to his writing that will draw you in and stay with you, perhaps, forever.
For more information, visit Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3j2m4fO