When I sat down to begin All The Light We Cannot See, I didn’t know what to expect. The description did not give much away and I knew that it must be about more than it suggested. I wasn’t wrong. This book is easily one of the best I have read in while.
With that in mind, I have thought long and hard about how to write a review for the first book in my 2016 Book Challenge that does it justice. It would be easy to recount plot points and talk about what I liked and didn’t like. At its most basic, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a story about how people try to do what they believe is best, set against the backdrop of World War Two. But I think the difference between a book you enjoy, and a book you love is often more about the little details and stylistics that are hard to describe, than in the general plot. All The Light We Cannot See is book that I loved.
For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth. In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
All The Light We Cannot See is written in the first person, from the perspective of Marie Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner a German boy, with hair as white as snow. Along with occasional snatches of perspective offered from satellite characters. We follow both from early childhood. Some characters they meet along the way are perhaps not fully realised and feel slightly two-dimensional but I don’t think it detracts from the overall feel of the book.
In the broadest sense of the term this book is a boy meets girl tale. However, Doerr is not concerned with the actual meeting, so much as how both characters move inevitably towards this meeting. It is a book concerned with all the things, big or small, that move us away from what we think our lives will be when we are young.
Of all the characters, I was most intrigued by Werner. His burning desire to do what is right, and what is good is continually confused. His constant struggle between enjoying all the opportunity that the Nazi regime has allowed him is contrasted with a nagging doubt that he knows what he doing is wrong. This contradiction is always at war inside him. At times I wanted him to stop pretending he was different to the rest of the Nazis around him. But I also understood that in the context he is written into, to do so would be futile, as we are shown with Frederick.
But Doerr deliberately invites the reader to think about how war changes people in ways that they never could have realised. Werner does what he must to get on, in the same way that Marie Laure does what she must to get on. Is it wrong for him to thrive in such a destructive system, to want to grab the chances offered to him? Why do we never judge Marie Laure or her uncle for the part they play in the French Resistance? Is one more or less guilty because they are on the right or wrong side of history
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
Doer plays with our ways of seeing things in All The Light We Cannot See. Marie-Laure, who cannot see, acts as a foil to all the deceit around her and heightens the way we, as readers, view the action. You want Werner to do well, whilst also wanting him to reject everything about the Nazi regime. Doerr himself seems uneasy about discussing the Nazis. He plays with the perspective that hindsight gives us. And suggests that, however uncomfortable, sometimes we can’t judge an action based on no context, or expect someone without access to that context to act differently.
In that sense, although Marie Laure is potentially the most successfully fleshed out of the two characters, I felt like it was Werner I wanted to understand. It is so hard to understand why anyone ever went along with the Nazi regime that I was fascinated by the ways Werner tries to convince himself he’s not doing anything wrong. How the system taught soldiers to suspend reason and simply follow orders. Is it so different today?
Doerr seems to master the art of telling a complex story in simple terms. The plot is revealed at neither too fast, nor too slow a pace. The deliberate interlacing of plots that jump across years and countries enables you to build a picture in your mind but, like a rubix-cube, it is not until you turn the final corner that everything finally clicks into place.
“What do we call visible light? We call it colour. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
I loved how Doerr splintered the plot of All The Light We Cannot See into flashbacks, and flash-forwards. He gradually blends both plotlines into a single present moment, 12th August 1944 and the Allied Bombing of St. Malo in France. Then, like electromagnetic waves, spirals the plot away from this and into the future. So that it is sometimes unclear whether the narrative moves towards, or away from the climax of the novel.
His chapters are short, and ideal for reading in snatches, on the bus, on your lunch break, before you drift off to sleep. Each chapter earns it’s keep though and I found it hard to put the book down because it was so tempting to read just. one. more. page. Reading Doerr’s prose in stolen moments was like a little present to myself. It is short and sharp, yet lyrical at the same time. Having never understood, much less appreciated, science it was a new experience to read paragraphs about engineering, or molecules that were written so beautifully.
“We all come into existence as 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 microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
I have often thought that of all the senses to lose my sight would be the worst; for the simple reason that I would no longer be able to read. Although I realise that I would still be able to experience literature in a 1000 different ways, I would always miss the single way I could not experience it. All The Light We Cannot See is a bit like that. Humans can do and be many different things, but it is what we could be, but aren’t that always haunts us.
This review is part of the 2016 Book Challenge. Find out more here:
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