Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer.
The recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in France and Germany during World War Two. It recounts the interlinking story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan who becomes a Hitler Youth. Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel, a locksmith at Paris’ Museum of Natural History, constructs models of Paris and Saint-Malo, France where they lived to teach his daughter how to manoeuvre throughout the cities independently. The allegedly cursed Sea of Flames diamond, the Nazi’s quest to secure the treasure, Werner’s aptitude for radio technology, the plight of families and their resistance efforts in occupied France are core to this book.
The five-hundred page novel begins August 7, 1944 when the Americans bombed Saint-Malo believing it a German stronghold. Thirteen sections spanning the years 1934 to 2014 follow. The story moves back and forth with a compelling range of characters providing a comprehensive view of all that happens. These include: Frau Elena who operates the German orphanage; Marie-Laure’s Great-Uncle Etienne; Werner’s Hitler Youth Friend, Frederick and his technical teacher, Dr. Hauptmann; and Sergeant Major Reinhold, a German gemologist tasked with finding the precious stone.
The tale is relayed in short chapters; their brief length eases the reader’s processing of some rather difficult material as well as mimics the turbulent war period. Clever and often single-word titles signal issues, themes and/or topics to be explored. “Jungmanner” meaning young men for the four page chapter outlining the fourteen year old Werner’s training as a Hitler Youth serves an apt example. The exchange of letters between Werner and his sister, Jutta is noteworthy. With the salutation, My Dear Sister Jutta and signature, Sieg heil, the correspondence advances plot while revealing internal conflict. Blacked out comments represent a stark method of showing German censuring of communication and merit comment.
Technically brilliant, each word in All The Light We Cannot See is selected with deliberation and every image, crafted with precision. I suspect Doerr decided extirpation to convey destruction in the chapter “Saint-Malo” when he described the bombing because of its harsh phonetics. In a similar vein, by penning the phrase“…an amber beam wandering the dust” in the chapter “Trapped”, he elevated an ordinary scene to the remarkable.
Meticulously researched, Doerr informs the reader of weighty facts without assuming a didactic tone or distracting attention from the human element. The interjection of French and German vocabulary adds authenticity, and I cite the inclusion of caviste, the person in charge of a wine cellar in the chapter, “The Boches” as testament.
The provision of a map locating significant places, however, would have enriched the reader’s experience. The Zollverein Coal Mine Complex in Essex, Germany was integral to Werner’s life as well as Schulpforta, Berlin and Munich and could have been marked. Tracing Marie-Laure and Daniel’s trek from Paris to Evreux to Saint-Malo would have heightened the emotional poignancy of their situation.
In sum, Doerr has written a visceral account of a period in time that has shaped the history of our lives. An extraordinary book, he excels at expressing Marie-Laure’s perception of the environment by accessing her sense of smell, touch, taste and hearing is brilliant. I offer excerpts from the chapter “Plage du Mole” depicting her visit to this southerly beach as proof of his literary achievement.
“When she raises her face to the sky, she can feel the thousand tiny spines of raindrops melt onto her cheeks, her forehead. She hears Madame Manec’s raspy breathing, and the deep sounding of the sea among the rocks, and the calls of someone down the beach echoing off the high walls…..Marie-Laure unwinds her scarf and Madame Manec takes it. Briny, weedy, pewter-colored air slips down her collar……She walks. Now there are cold round pebbles beneath her feet…It’s like cold silk….The sand pulls the heat from her fingertips, from the soles of her feet.”
What do you see with your eyes closed? All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr leaves us with an impression of what is possible.