All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
This is a book that was selected for our Thursday night book group. I mention this because I probably would not have read this novel had it not been selected, as I seldom read novels that are current best-sellers (The Martian was a recent exception, also selected by a book club). By the end of the novel I found that I enjoyed reading All the Light We Cannot See, but I did not share the views of the Pulitzer selection committee and those readers that have claimed greatness for this novel.
Beginning in August 1944, we meet Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany. She is there with her great-uncle Etienne as they have moved out of Paris hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany.
The story is told with parallel short chapters providing flashbacks where we learn that Werner had been a bit of a math prodigy who at a very early age developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancy's during this period. Werner is selected to attend a technical school and later is transferred by a mentor into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions.
Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.
The story plays out in short chapters and the time shifts from the present to the past. All of this is presented in a lucid and uncomplicated style that I found easy to read. The author is best in his use of theme and metaphor with the motif of light and the use of Verne's novel as a way to demonstrate the importance of imagination and an inner life for Marie-Laure. There is also a related motif of the voyage both from the Verne novel and from her great-uncle's reading of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle to her; "She loves especially to hear about the dark coasts of South America with their impenetrable walls of trees and offshore breezes full of the stink of rotting kelp and the cries of whelping seals. She loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship's rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes."(p 150-1) Passages like this are all the more memorable and meaningful when you reflect that the little blind girl is imagining these views and smells in her mind with no visual referent.
The life of the mind is just as important for Werner as he solves mathematical problems related to the building and repair of radios. This skill undoubtedly helps him survive what becomes a more difficult existence as the war proceeds. He is also inspired by "the Frenchman's radio program" (not realizing the source) and books like "Heinrich Hertz's Principles of Mechanics". (p 220) Likewise Marie-Laure's imagination helps her as she and her great-uncle struggle for survival. The two main characters also are buoyed by their love for family; Werner for his sister Jutta, and Marie-Laure for her father.
Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable and the information about the war was not enlightening to anyone with even an average knowledge of the history of World War II. Moreover I found the secondary characters appeared as stereotypical types; for example, Werner's best friend at the technical school, Frederick, who was portrayed as wealthy but weak (you realize immediately that he is unlikely to survive the competitive atmosphere of the school). There is an episode (notable only for its violence) when Frederick is culled from the class through horrible physical tests. He suffers more through Werner's inability to show any courage to stand up for him. Perhaps Werner learns a lesson in this episode for he demonstrates much courage later in the story. Finally, the denouement of the the story of Marie and Werner lacks suspense and I found it tended toward the melodramatic.
However, these issues did not significantly diminish my enjoyment reading this novel; thus I would recommend it to those who like entertaining historical novels. Just do not expect to be challenged by it.
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