09 April 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr's ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE was a pretty substantial undertaking for me: a 500+ page adult novel about World War II. It was a pretty sharp left turn from what I have been reading for most of the year (mostly YA). But oh my goodness was it ever worth it. The book has had praised heaped upon it.

That praise is justly deserved.

The the ten-second summary—a story about a blind French girl and a German boy during World War II—hardly does the novel justice.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is so much more than that.

Marie-Laure, who we first meet in August 1944, is blind, yes, but she is fiercely intelligent, curious about the world around her, deeply loving of her father, her great-uncle, and his maid. She loves studying shells. She is fearless, even when she should be afraid.

Werner, who we also meet in August 1944, is young, only eighteen, and has already been in the war for years. He's smart, too, a loving brother, a wizard with radios, and brave in his own way, but having grown up in the Third Reich, he's seen his own best attributes twisted into something he can hardly recognize.

The novel shifts back and forth, starting when Marie-Laure is a young girl just going blind, living with her father in Paris; and when Werner is a young orphan, living with his sister Jutta in Zollverein in a boarding house. It follows Marie-Laure through the invasion of France, her flight to the seaside town of Saint-Malo; and it follows Werner as his proficiency with radio engineering lands him a place in a prestigious school that will lead to prestigious placement in the Wehrmacht.

Another thread winds its way through the novel: that of a large diamond kept at the National Museum, the Sea of Fire. The stone is, supposedly, both blessed and cursed: its holder will never die, but those its holder loves will be pelted with an endless rain of misfortunes.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE was an exquisite blend of sadness and hope, of cruelty and kindness. We exalted in Marie-Laure's bravery even as we were faced with—and sympathized with—Werner's tiny acts of cowardice. 1940s Germany wasn't a great place to be a teenaged boy.

Smarter people than me can probably talk more eloquently about all the ways this book was amazing. I just want to point out some particularly beautiful prose that really stuck with me.

The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. [She's given some peaches next.] Seconds later, she's eating wedges of wet sunlight.

The look in the skaters’ eyes was of horses who have run a long way, and it was always exciting for Werner to see them, to feel the air disturbed by their speed, to hear their skates clapping along, then fading - a sensation as if his soul might tear free of his body and go sparking off with them.

The mine complex is a smoldering black mountain range behind her. Even now Werner can hear a mechanical drumbeat thudding in the distance, first shift going down in the elevators as the owl shift comes up - all those boys with tired eyes and soot-stained faces rising in the elevators to meet the sun - and for a moment he apprehends a huge and terrible presence looming just beyond the morning.

German soldiers sing a drunken song in the street, and a house spider spins a new web every night, and to Marie-Laure this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the earth does not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun. 

The book is full of breathtaking, heart-stopping imagery. Marie-Laure and Werner are absolutely compelling.

It's been a long time since I read adult fiction that I wanted to immediately go back and start from the beginning, but this was one.