I put off reading Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See for a long time because of the kind of book I perceived it to be. The title (and cover) suggested something cold and lofty. I had also been told by other readers that it was just soooo sad. Given the unholy mess the world is in right at the moment, this was offputting – I didn’t relish the idea of visiting a universe steeped in cruelty and tragedy, no matter how mightily written. But I’m happy to say I was wrong. This is a truly beautiful book, bleak at times yet full of warmth, lyrically yet accessibly told, with characters you care about and a story that is both tragic and ultimately satisfying.
So, where to start without giving too much away?
It opens in Brittany, August 1944. Nazi-occupied port Saint-Malo is under bombardment by US Forces. Hiding out alone in her great-uncle’s house is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a 16-year-old blind girl. Across town, trapped in the basement under the collapsed Hotel of Bees, is 18-year-old German radio engineer Werner Pfennig. Both are in dire straits.
We then have flashbacks to before the war, filling in the details of each character’s journey to this crucial juncture.
As the Nazis marched into Paris in 1940, Marie-Laure was forced to flee her home with her father to their only relative in Saint-Malo. Mr LeBlanc had with him a valuable object that would bring sinister forces in their wake. Four years later, everyone close to her seems to be gone. She waits, alone, wondering what will become of her.
Young Werner was raised in a German orphanage, along with his little sister Jutta. They only ever knew poverty. His prospects were limited, so it seemed like a dream come true when his gift for electronic engineering was recognised by the military. Initially, he saw only opportunity in Hitler’s promise to make Germany great again, despite Jutta [the voice of his conscience and one of my reservations about the book, as she is more mouthpiece than rounded character] warning him of something darker underpinning it. She poses one of the novel’s chief questions – whether you should ever turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, asking Werner, ‘Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’
In much the same way that Markus Zusak’s wonderful novel The Book Thief explored the war from the point of view of ordinary German citizens with no interest in world domination, so too does All the Light show what a lethal juggernaut it can be when politics taps into people’s prejudices, differences and sense of entitlement. The moral dilemma of doing nothing to stop evil from triumphing shimmers in the background. It’s troublingly relevant today.
While Werner was initially carried along on a wave of hope that his engineering talents would allow him to make a better life for himself and Jutta, at the elite Nazi military training academy he was dispatched to he witnessed staggering brutality towards anyone who didn’t measure up to the Aryan ideal. Here, he has the first inkling of the dehumanising brainwashing carried out by an extreme ideology:
It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness. They study Werner with suspicion when he returns from Hauptmann’s lab. They do not trust that he’s an orphan, that he’s often alone, that his accent carries a whisper of the French he learned as a child.
At this point, I’m probably just upholding the idea that this is a deeply depressing book. And yet oddly, I didn’t find it to be. The characters are rounded and likeable, the language highly evocative. In the following excerpt, Marie-Laure (admittedly still in the early days of the war) daydreams about her adopted home as she memorises it using the scale model that her father has lovingly made for her:
Most afternoons, after making the morning rounds with Madame, Marie-Laure sits on her bed with the window open and travels her hands over her father’s model of the city. Her fingers pass the shipbuilder’s sheds on the rue de Chartres, pass Madame Ruelle’s bakery on the rue Robert Surcouf. In her imagination she hears the bakers sliding about on the flour-slick floor, moving in the way she imagines ice skaters must move, baking loaves in the same four-hundred-year-old oven that Monsieur Ruelle’s great-great-grandfather used. Her fingers pass the cathedral steps – here an old man clips roses in a garden; here, beside the library, Crazy Hubert Bazin murmurs to himself as he peers with his one eye into an empty wine bottle; here is the convent; here’s the restaurant Chez Chuche beside the fish market; here’s Number 4 rue Vauborel, its door slightly recessed, where downstairs Madame Manec kneels beside her bed, shoes off, rosary beads slipping through fingers, a prayer for practically every soul in the city.
Housekeeper Madame Manec also provides a bit of much-needed comic relief. She is another voice of conscience, instigating a mini-resistance during the Occupation among the genteel elderly mesdames of the neighbourhood. They tamper with road signs and telephone connections, ‘lose’ important mail bound for Nazi commandants and write ‘Free France Now’ on five-franc notes, knowing that they will remain in circulation as “no one can afford to destroy money”. She nags Marie-Laure’s great-uncle Etienne – a traumatised WWI veteran who has cut himself off from a world he fears – into getting involved by broadcasting coded messages to the Allies using his hidden radio equipment. Far from feeling oppressed by the invaders, this one-upmanship gives Madame a sense of euphoria. “Seventy-six years old,” she says to Marie-Laure, “and I can still feel like this? Like a little girl with stars in my eyes?” It raises a smile from the reader, but also a dreadful sense of foreboding. Beautifully done.
Along the way there is much joyfulness and attention to detail, with a love for everything from Jules Verne to science to the Clair de Lune. If this blog was fancy enough to have a star rating system, this book would definitely get five stars from me. Agree? Disagree? Let me know.
Below, Doerr explains how the components of his story came together:
- Copyright Notice – Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, courtesy of flickr.com