All the Light We Cannot See: Doerr Illuminates the Heart in WWII Saga

The brain is locked in total darkness . . . yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. 

These words crackle over an old radio in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). They represent a significantly fundamental idea to the novel’s main characters and to the reader’s experience of the book. Doerr’s World War II saga conveys the war’s beginnings through its aftermath via the alternating perspectives of a Nazi boy and a blind Parisian girl. Written in a sparse yet lyrical narrative, All The Light We Cannot See is a nuanced portrait of the oppressive darkness which reigned during this time in history, as well as the flames of humanity- and love-which managed to outlast it.

The (spoiler free-ish) story:

Werner Pfennig grows up in a poor, German orphanage with his beloved sister, Jutta. They live in a town where boys automatically become men who are condemned to a life of  mining as soon as they turn fourteen. When Werner is thirteen years old,his greatest fear is being sent into those mines, the same ones where his own father died. But another opportunity finds him first.  People whisper about the “big things” coming for Germany under Hitler’s leadership. While Werner doesn’t know much about the Reich, he does know that he has a burning desire to understand the world and a rare talent with mathematics and technology. His intellect- combined with his white-blond hair and blue eyes- secure him a place at the National Political Institute of Education where his skills are immediately put to use for Nazi warfare. Werner begins to learn other, non-academic, lessons as well: that being different is dangerous, that his intelligence makes him both valuable and captive, that life would be easier if he could only trade in his own thoughts and sense of morality for that of those around him.

As Werner struggles to accept his role in Germany, a blind girl named Marie-Laure is being raised by her father in France. Whereas Werner must reconfigure himself for the new world he has been placed in, Marie-Laure’s world has, for most of her childhood, been lovingly constructed around her. Her father teaches her to use her senses, to memorize models he has built of streets and buildings, to read Braille, to dream.   When Paris is bombed, Marie and her father flee to the home of her great uncle in Saint Malo, an eccentric man with a fascination for stories and radios. As Marie-Laure is exposed to her own losses and a world outside of comfortable bubble in Pairs, she becomes more curious and imaginative about the world around her. Just as the events of the war push Werner to become one of many, they also force Marie-Laure to become more independent and brave.  For most of the novel, Werner and Marie’s stories remain separate, though interwoven in numerous ways that they have no way of knowing.  The two characters finally converge in a powerful way at the story’s most climatic point.

Doerr spent the greater part of 10 years entrenched in his research, stating that it was his greatest delay in finishing the book.  And his attention to detail does come through in All the Light We Cannot See in a sensory-rich feast.  However, while this book may be seen as a memorial to WWII, it does not contain a straightforward account of historical events. This is not a book of linear facts. Instead, Doerr’s details tell about the horrors of the war solely through the characters’ experiences of them: a forbidden book of birds painted by an American illustrator, the measuring of noses done prior to entrance in Hitler’s academy, bulging bags of ownerless weddings rings to be sorted by a Nazi jeweler.

One area in which Doerr’s descriptions are particularly exceptional is when he describes things from Marie-Laure’s perspective.  The way her blindness impacts her perception does not give her a limited narrative, but a striking one. When thousands of fliers are dropped over the city of Saint Malo with orders to evacuate, Marie first hears the paper rattling in the wind, then finds one with her fingers and notes that it smells like fresh ink and gasoline.  Though she cannot read the words printed on the paper, she understands the meaning. Often, the characters in All the Light We Cannot See never learn the significance of what is occurring around them; many of these historically significant details are tucked away in the text purely to give the modern reader goosebumps.

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Doerr’s story is compelling in its focus on the inner-workings of his characters as they experience the war.  The author artfully conveys the fear that comes from making choices with dangerous and unknown repercussions. He shows hope in the friendship that grows between Marie and her uncle, Etienne.  He depicts the weight of personal, senseless loss through the events that befall one of Werner’s best friends, Frederick. He conveys the feeling that so many people had after WWII: a lifetime of answerless questions.

In this manner, All the Light We Cannot See is a story with two kinds of truth.  First, it is true in the well-researched details of its setting and history. However, and much more profoundly, it is true in the same way that all great stories are true; it makes us, the (you know, readers) understand things we didn’t understand before, ask big questions, and feel full of a broad spectrum of human emotion. If I’m being completely honest, I had to lie awake for awhile when I finished this book a couple of nights ago, sinking into a trembling puddle of feelings–an understanding of times and places that I will never understand fully, but that this novel has given me a sense of.

Doerr’s  lyrical writing style will probably attract  readers who enjoy poetry and fantasy; in many ways this novel often reads like it should belong to a different  genre than historical fiction. Reader who love fairy-tales and poems will likely think this author’s writing is exquisite, whereas those who are expecting a more traditional or straightforward war narrative may find it jarring.

However, given the descriptiveness of the novel, it has much easier readability than one might expect. In part, this is due to Doerr’s habit of “showing” (and hardly ever “telling”).  Another, more obvious, structural statement of this novel which impacts readability is that its chapters are never more than a few pages long, each with its own self-contained theme and perspective.  Meanwhile, the plight’s of the characters and the non-linear storytelling keep the pages turning quickly. While this structure is unusual, and may not appeal to all readers, it certainly has benefits. Doerr said that he started writing the novel when he was a new father, with very short spaces of time available for writing. From my personal experience, the novel is likewise well-suited to busy readers.

The structure of All the Light We Cannot See makes it feasible to pick up and read for only three minutes without getting lost . . . but I’m betting you are going to want to read it for more than 3 minutes.

 

 

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