I have been on a roll so far this year with my literature choices. Two of the books I asked for for Christmas were National Book Award finalists, and they have not disappointed. The first, of course, was Station Eleven, officially placed on my Top 10 Books list. And the second was Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous and mesmerizing All the Light We Cannot See.
Doerr’s novel traces the childhood and teenage years of Marie-Laure, the daughter of the locksmith at the National Museum of Paris and blind since early childhood, and Werner, an orphan who discovered a love of and gift for engineering, particularly building and repairing radios, before and during World War II. Marie-Laure’s father lovingly builds models of their neighborhood in Paris and later in Saint-Malo, where they go to escape the war, so that Marie-Laure can learn her way around by touch and provides her with wonderful adventure books in braille by Jules Verne to stoke her love of learning and the world around her. Werner’s gift for radios and mechanical repair becomes evident early enough that he does not have to go to work in the coal mines like other men in his village; instead he is scooped up and sent to a training school for the army of the Third Reich and later deployed as a radio “finder”. What results is an affecting look at how the war impacted normal people, particularly children, through Marie-Laure and Werner’s searches for beauty, knowledge, and love as their paths converge for a brief moment.
Doerr’s narrative might be a bit more conventional than Mandel’s, but his manipulation of language is just as, if not more, lush and sparkling. He paints a beautiful, impressionistic love letter to science and humanity through his images and dialogue, and he creates a beautifully realized structure of parallel narratives that bounce through time and meet for that one crucial moment between Marie-Laure and Werner. He emphasizes early on that though Marie-Laure cannot see the world around her, what she sees in her imagination is vibrant and full of color. I recently saw a commercial that featured a young girl who was blind describing her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, and the film makers brought her descriptions of how she imagined these characters to life on the screen. It was a riot of color, whimsey, and wonder, and it reminded me very much of how Marie-Laure experiences the world: the smoothness of snail shells, the greenness of the water in a little grotto, the spicy and pungent smells of the various rooms and offices in the museum. Additionally, Doerr captures Werner’s journey with empathy and compassion. Werner grows from young boy eager to learn everything he can about science and escape a life in the coal mines to a student at one of the Third Riech’s training schools, happy to have found a niche for himself in the science classroom but questioning the blind obedience to the school’s ideals, and finally to a German soldier, clinging to his own humanity as he sees the realities of the war. The way Doerr writes mounting dread is extraordinary, and the Nazi presence increases in Werner’s life steadily and stealthily, much like the Nazi Party’s actual rise to power. Werner’s first chapters are so grounded in his childhood that it is almost a slap to the face when the first allusion to the Nazi’s appears, and that moment establishes the personal struggle Werner will face in opposing Nazi ideals but taking advantage of opportunities that will arise for him. Like The Book Thief, it is a look at an ordinary German boy with an extraordinary skill thrust into the war machine he does not support but cannot avoid, highlighting the complexities of thought and situation that many Germans faced.
I’m having a hard time writing this review because I don’t know what else to say other than that I was bowled over by the sheer beauty of this book. It’s a wonderful story with strikingly drawn characters and excellent historical research. But I think it is the beauty of the text that puts it over the top for me, whether it is in the biggest descriptions of Saint-Malo or the tiniest moment of emotion. I don’t feel like I’ve adequately described the book, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed.