Effervescence in the midst of invisible light

A review of Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

“Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ tells a story about emotion, but not sentimentality. The emotion from the events subtly rises from out of the pages. It is not forced from well-worn tropes.” ★★★★☆ — By Janin B. Volante

This historical fiction masterpiece interweaves the stories of blind girl living in Paris with her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, and of a prodigious German boy with an affinity for building and fixing radios, fated to work in the coal mine complex of Zollverein.

Their paths cross during World War II in the walled city of Saint-Malo. Doerr pulls off an enthralling tale with an elegant subtlety of emotion and great sensory imagery. The intricate narrative, however, was weighed down by a writing style with fragmented sentences and inaccurate language for 1930s to 1940s Europe.

The novel is written in alternating chapters between the two main characters and cuts back and forth through time, starting with the bombing of Saint-Malo by the Allied Forces then going back a decade earlier to Marie-Laure’s tour of the museum and Werner’s discovery of a broken radio, and then jumping back to Saint-Malo and its trapped occupants, and so on.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc has congenital cataracts and goes blind when she is six years old. Her father, the keeper of the keys at a big museum, refuses to let her spiral into self-pity and builds an intricate scale wooden model of the neighborhoods close to them so she can navigate its streets with familiarity.

It is right when Doerr says that the despair does not last long. Marie-Laure learns to be self-reliant and strong despite her disability because of her father’s patience. Every Tuesday her father tests her mastery of the model and the streets around her and has her lead them home. She is frustrated at consecutive failures and is intimidated at first at how big the world is. But eventually she succeeds. Every year on her birthday, her father places a puzzle box which she has to solve to get a present and a Braille book beside it on the dining table. She grows to love Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. She spends the rest of her time learning about mollusks with Dr. Geffard, a scientist from the museum, admiring the curves and apertures of the shells by way of touch.

The author describes everything with great sensory detail. We experience the world as Marie-Laure experiences it. Doerr may not be able to wow the reader with visual descriptions in the blind girl’s chapters but we hear the sounds she hears, smell the scents she smells and feel the sensations she feels. We read of “an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery” and of “she can hear the bombers when they are three miles away. A mounting static. The hum inside a seashell.”

Meanwhile, three hundred miles away in Germany, Werner Pfennig is fascinated by the crude radio he and his sister Jutta find behind a storage shed. He restores it to working condition despite not having any formal education in electronics. The siblings, who look distinctly Aryan with hair as white as snow and blue eyes, were allocated some years ago to the care of Frau Elena in the Children’s House after their father died in a coal mining accident. Jutta finds a length of copper wire that they attach to the radio, allowing them to listen to foreign broadcasts. They occasionally hear the propaganda of the Nazis, but what really fixate them are the scientific lectures by a French man they happen upon while tuning the radio.

“What do we call visible light?” the voice over the radio asks. “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.” You would think that the title behind the novel is obvious upon learning about Marie-Laure’s blindness but reading this line makes you realize that the connotation goes beyond that. There is also the paradox presented by the Frenchman of the brain being locked in total darkness yet having all the power to construct in the mind a world full of light. These motifs appear throughout the novel, even alluding in Marie-Laure’s perspective to a world beyond that which we can see, “To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world.”

Werner’s talents are noticed by German Nazi officers when one of them fetches him from the orphanage to fix the expensive Philco radio of a wealthy powerful couple. He is offered a spot in an elite Nazi school that only takes the purest and the best of Germany’s youth where he will be trained to use his abilities in the war. Werner sees this as a chance to escape the bleak fate of working in the mines where his father perished as it is decreed mandatory by the government for all boys when they turn 15.

In 1940, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris as the war inevitably reaches the city. The Museum packs up its specimens and artifacts and sends them off to country estates in fear of the Nazis getting a hold of the priceless pieces for Hitler’s planned museum: a trove of the greatest achievements in human culture. It is said that the Museum of Natural History in Paris is in possession of the Sea of Flames, a 133-carat blue diamond with a red core that legend has it brings immortality to its owner and misfortune to his loved ones. Marie-Laure dreads that her father has been near it. As if confirming Marie-Laure’s fears, the director of the Museum tasks the locksmith to carry the gem or perhaps a replica of it to prevent the Germans from finding the stone.

The LeBlancs evacuate to Saint-Malo where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great-uncle Etienne lives. He has been afraid to go outside ever since the last Great War where he watched his brother die. Marie-Laure does not know that the Sea of Flames or one of the copies is hidden inside the wooden model of Etienne’s house, part of the larger model of Saint-Malo that she must learn to traverse, until after her father is arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

The National Political Institute of Education that Werner is sent to is ferocious and strict. Young boys are fed the ideologies of the führer. They are made to point out the weakest among them, who must run lest he be caught and beaten by his fellows. Yet here, Werner enhances his technical skills. He impresses his instructor with his swiftness in building Morse code circuits and radios. He still dreams of becoming an engineer. He endures the school for the education he receives from it and not so much that he believes in the cause of the Nazis. Eventually, he starts doubting himself for becoming tolerant of the ugliness and violence the war thrusts upon him. He becomes a soldier triangulating radio transmissions of the resistance. This is what brings him to Saint-Malo, one of the last German strongholds, where he discovers a blind auburn-haired girl part of the French resistance.

This split perspective between two people caught on opposite sides of the war gives us an insight of what happens in their lives, in their childhood as it is interrupted by the clash of their countries. It shows how the German people, despite what innate goodness, could have done what they did. All the Light We Cannot See tells a story of emotion but not sentimentality. It does not rely heavily on whatever sympathy the circumstances of the characters evoke. You do not pity Marie-Laure for being blind or Werner for being an orphan, both children caught up in war. The emotion from the events subtly rises out of the pages. It is not forced from well-worn tropes.

Ultimately, the time jumps and alternating perspectives add to the suspense of the story. You keep turning the pages wanting to find out how the characters meet and then once you come across the dastardly diamond hunter, Sergeant Major Von Rumpel, you fear for Marie-Laure and Etienne.

This book has all the elements of a gripping tale that asks questions about life, humanity and morality in the face of war, and that resonates with you long after reading the last page.

The book’s writing style is laden by fragmented sentences that are sometimes lyrically beautiful but impede the flow of the narrative. Also, the European characters’ tendency to sound like modern-day Americans with expressions like, “Are you feeling okay?”, “Sure,” and “What do you care?” is inconsistent with the culture and time period the story is set in.

While a bit off-putting, these small flaws do not take away from the great reading experience that is All the Light We Cannot See. I highly recommend this brilliant book for all fans of historical fiction and those just looking for a good read. ■ AH Online / The Culture Review

(Editor’s Note: This review was first published in AH Vol. IV, Issue 1 in July 2015)