“All The Light We Cannot See”
I almost didn’t read this book.
The blurb drew me in; the idea of a book that despite the setting of the Second World War was about seeing the best in people. I immediately liked the idea that there would be a positive spin on such a tragic subject.
Werner is a German orphan who lives with his sister Jutta and the other children in an orphanage in Germany. Werner is an incredibly curious child; he writes lots of big questions in his notebook and learns that he is adept at fixing things. He holds onto the belief that he is destined for big things; he wants to be a scientist, presumably one of the contributing factors being his thirst for answers to questions such as “when lightning strikes the sea, why don’t all the fish die?”
Marie-Laure on the other hand, is a blind girl living with her devoted father who works at a museum in Paris. He builds a model replica of the area they live in so that his daughter can study it and find her way around the streets by herself. The perseverance of her character is astounding throughout the novel. Despite the barriers she faces, she is always determined and, like Werner, she is very interested in the world around her.
It never fails to astonish me the way writers can create characters who are children and can describe with accuracy their thought processes. As will be the case with most others, I am unable to remember many, if any at all, thoughts and feelings that I may have had as a child. It highlights the skill that writers have to depict characters to such a degree of accuracy that you can hardly believe them not to be real.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
The beautiful descriptions are what truly drew me into this book. I read an interview with the author Anthony Doerr and he was talking about how he loves writing long and intricate descriptions of the people and places he writes about. That style of writing is what can make or break a book for me. And in this case; I need only quote one of the radio broadcasts that a young Werner listens to in order to demonstrate the beauty of his work.
“Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove. See it children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years — eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight — sunlight one hundred million years old — is heating your home tonight.”
It doesn’t become apparent until later on in the novel that the mysterious broadcast that Werner and his sister Jutta listened to as young children was in fact a broadcast from Marie-Laure’s Uncle Etienne out of an attic in Saint-Malo. This is the first way in which the ties between the characters of Werner and Marie-Laure are made. The skillful way in which Doerr writes meant that it was not immediately apparent whether or not the stories of the two children would ever actually intertwine. This turned into one of the reasons I loved the book so much. There is a brief moment in the book in which the two characters meet, and it is one of the most beautiful ways of bringing the two stories together. They meet in the attic of the house Marie-Laure has been staying in since fleeing Paris when war broke out. Though their meeting is short, there is a connection between them that in another novel could have been a great love story. In a way, it was a great love story in that it all lay in what might have been. Werner, in that small timeframe of them being in each others company, imagines a time in which they are not in the middle of a War (in which they are technically enemies) and in which something might have become of them as lovers.
The reason why I almost didn’t read the book was at a point in which Werner is a part of Hitler Youth. There were some particularly upsetting descriptions of some of the awful things that they were made to do. I had to stop reading it for a while, and at that point I considered stopping it altogether. There usually comes a point in a book that makes you stop and wonder if it is really for you. And I am eternally glad that I decided to carry on.
Between the beautiful descriptions, the storyline and the masterful intertwining of different times and places, “All The Light We Cannot See” is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that really does stay with you. I could not recommend it enough.
“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.”