Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Papa says curses are only stories cooked up to deter thieves.  He says there are sixty-five million specimens in this place, and if you have the right teacher, each can be as interesting as the last.”

“Still,” he says, “certain things compel people.  Pearls, for example, and sinistral shells, shells with a left-handed opening.  Even the best scientists feel the urge now and then to put something in a pocket.  That something so small could be so beautiful.  Worth so much.  Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”

They are quiet a moment.

Marie-Laure says, “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.”

“You want to know what it looks like.  That’s why you’re so curious.”

She rolls a murex in her hands.  Holds it to her ear.  Ten thousand drawers, ten thousand whispers inside ten thousand shells.

“No,” she says.  “I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it.” (p. 52)

I’ll be honest:  most World War II-set fiction released in recent years has bored me.  There are only so many ways that one can treat the Nazis, after all.  I can only handle so much cartoonish bad guys goosestepping with jackboots threatening to undercover some arcane secret that will turn the tide in their favor.  I also am not enamored with most “boy meets girl” stories, as too many authors settle for the clichéd instead of trying to develop interesting, complex, dynamic characters.

And yet Anthony Doerr has combined the two in his latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, and it is worlds better than the setting or premise would have led me to believe.  Yes, it is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and yes, it does feature a boy and girl meeting, but how this occurs and more importantly, what this encounter means makes All the Light We Cannot See that rare sort of novel that works equally well on several levels.  Casual readers who prefer “light fare” will get just as much enjoyment out of this novel as readers who love intricately-constructed prose and scenes full of symbolic meaning.

All the Light We Cannot See alternates between two youth:  a blind French teen-aged girl, Marie-Laure, the daughter of a locksmith who constructed elaborate miniature models of the Parisian streets so she can be as independent as she can be, and Werner Pfennig, a diminutive orphan who manages to escape the mines by demonstrating an affinity for radio transmission and repair.  Their chapters are brief, usually less than five pages, but there is rarely that jolting sense that comes with rapid movement between perspectives.  Doerr has created certain parallels between objects and characters, with the latent symbolism becoming more apparent as the reader progresses.  Elements such as a mysterious blue diamond that according to legend had a curse on it add to the effect, as these tales and other events, like an old series of science-related shortwave transmissions in the 1930s, add layers of meaning without distracting readers from focusing their attention on the characters.

Marie-Laure and Werner are very dynamic, well-developed characters.  Doerr shows each in various stages of development, Marie-Laure as she learns to read again and to become a young scientist despite her disability, Werner as he resists becoming dehumanized by his forced enrollment in the Hitler Youth.  The connections that eventually lead the two to meet in August 1944 in Brittany are subtle at first, consisting more of seemingly trivial events and conversations that only years later are revealed to be important.  It isn’t until the final hundred pages or so that the two meet, but due to Doerr’s excellent development of their characters, their meeting in the midst of the Allied invasion does not feel forced in either the timing or in how the two interact.

Moreover, Doerr resists taking the easy route in completing their story.  Wars devastate, changing lives on several levels.  The time he spent establishing Marie-Laure and Werner’s characters pays off in how the postwar events, leading up to 2014, are described.  By the time the final, bittersweet scene ends, their tale has become a rich, textured one, full of memorable turns of phrase and vivid portraits.  It is not just another World War II-based novel, not just another “boy meets girl” love story.  It is a story of two lives, lives that are worth reading about, and it is a tale that can be re-read several times without any loss in enjoyment because of the care Doerr took in developing all aspects of this novel.  I have purposely resisted going into detail about most of the symbols embedded in the text because analyzing them here might lessen the joy new readers might have if they read the novel later, but All the Light We Cannot See works because the symbols are clear in hindsight and they complement well the fascinating characters.  It is a novel I shall revisit in the future.

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