July 14, 2014
Anthony Doerr’s sentences are as perfect and precise as the crystals and seashells he writes about. Open his new novel to any page, pull out any sentence, and you’ll find his lyrical perfect pitch. “That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth” he says about his protagonist. We could say the same thing about Doerr’s prose.
All the Light We Cannot See is an ambitious tome, sweeping in scale, weighing in at 530 pages. It tackles grand themes: war and resistance, breaking the law when the law is unjust, the military culture of bullying, fate and free will, the resiliency of the human spirit, unlikely love between two enemies, the sacrifices parents make for their children and individuals make for their countries, physical blindness versus spiritual blindness, the history of the radio as a weapon for resistance, the power of science, and the possibilities of magic and legend.
All the Light We Cannot See follows Werner and Marie-Laure, two young people forced to make almost impossibly difficult choices, one fighting for the Nazis, the other for the French Resistance in World War II. We first meet Werner when he is seven years old, living at an orphanage in a rural German mining town. Even though he is a self-taught prodigy, he knows he will be sent to work in the mines, and perhaps die prematurely there like his parents. But then Werner’s unmatched skill at radio repair lands him an opportunity to attend a military boarding school and learn engineering. Remarkably, Doerr makes us empathize with Werner and understand his moral dilemma.
Doerr also masterfully allows us to see the world through the eyes of a perceptive blind girl. Marie-Laure’s father’s job as chief locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris grants her access to a treasure trove of scientific knowledge. Books allow her to see beyond the visible world: She reads the braille versions of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and her great-uncle translates Charles Darwin for her when she is forced to evacuate Paris for the island of Saint-Malo.
Each chapter, just a few pages long, is meant to be savored, not sped through. The plot is nuanced and subtle, skirting us backward and forward in time, provoking us to challenge our preconceptions about World War II.
The mythical, almost Biblical tone resonates in sentences throughout: “I heard that the diamond is like a piece of light from the original world. Before it fell. A piece of light rained to earth from God.” An old man smells “of coming winter, a tomb, the heavy inertia of time.” Soldiers appear in the city, and “the war drops its question mark.”
The book also pans down to life as its smallest level. “We all came into existence in a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscope electrical swarm.”
Like everything else about the book, its love story is told in a surprising and fresh way. “Werner thinks of [Marie-Laure], whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him.”
This is a World War II story, but it is not a story you’ve heard before. It is a whirl of moral ambiguities, of subtleties and grays. The boys at Werner’s boarding school are taught to think of themselves as merely weapons, but Werner’s best friend Frederik, an avid bird watcher and nature lover, can’t deny his human sensitivity, with disastrous results. Werner’s beloved sister Jutta resists the call to nationalism and serves as Werner’s nagging moral compass. At the end, an adult Marie-Laure ponders, “In the stories after the war, all the resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who could construct machine guns from paper clips. And the Germans either raised their godlike blond heads through open tank hatches to watch broken cities scroll past, or else were psychopathic, sex-crazed torturers of beautiful Jewesses. Where did the boy fit in? He made such a faint presence. It was like being in the room with a feather. But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness, didn’t it?”
This is not the story of blindness you’ve heard before, either. Authors often draw from stereotypes or slip into condescension, but not Doerr’s portraits of blindness: “When Marie-Laure holds her hand over Madame’s chest, heat seems to steam up out of her sternum as though she cooks from the inside.” “Insects drone” and “horses nicker, and the wind comes off the sea gentle and cool and full of smells.”
Either the reading public has better taste than I’d given them credit for or (more likely), Doerr’s brilliance blurs the distinctions between fiction markets. A few weeks after its launch, All the Light We Cannot See is high on the bestseller list and featured on the shelves at airport bookstores.
It’s impossible to fit all the threads woven through the novel into a short review. . But the book is much more than a sum of its threads. In the same way that Audobon’s Birds of America (a recurring motif) is “a book not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged trumpeting mysteries” All the Light We Cannot See is not so much full of its narrative threads as full of invisible, unexplainable beauty.