Anthony Doerr’s splendid, elegiac novel All The Light We Cannot See encompasses WW2 within an examination of the lives and worlds of two teenagers: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfenning, a German whiz-kid desperate to live the coal mine fate of his home town of Essen. Written mostly in the present tense, with recurring flashbacks throughout both children’s lives, All The Light progresses inevitably to their meeting during the siege of St.-Malo, France, in August of 1944.
Doerr’s narrative captures with words elements that literally cannot be visualized. Radio waves, communication, thoughts, the songs of birds, time, fear, love, loyalty . . . and the ever present drifting of musical notes. A voice is described as “a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.” As a touchstone, Doerr returns time and time again to Debussy’s Clair de Lune. (Listen to the piece here: http://youtu.be/-LXl4y6D-QI)
To quantify Marie-Laure’s blindness, Doerr is even more limited than her father, who constructs scale models of their neighborhood in Paris and ultimately of the entire town of St.-Malo, complete with park benches and gutter openings.
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
In contrast, Werner must also rely on non-visual cues for his own navigation. He triangulates radio emissions to find Allied and Resistance transistors and leads his team there to eliminate them.
I listened to this book over the past few weeks, 16 hours worth, and found it mesmerizing, haunting, sometimes too disturbing to accompany a drive. The details of the Nazi youth training program, the flight of Marie-Laure and her father from Paris to St.-Malo frankly made me shut off the sound on several occasions. But each chapter is fairly short, as if Doerr himself can’t stand to render more than a certain modicum of horror, beauty or incandescence per page.
All The Light We Cannot See was an international bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Awards, and has been named a best book of 2014 at the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, the Daily Beast, Slate.com, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, and Kirkus.
There are many words and sentences that remain in my mind. Doerr’s mastery of language is profound. Near the end of the book, Doerr moves the narrative to some twenty-five or thirty years after WW2. One particularly poignant thought is expressed as, “Every hour someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”
All the Light We Cannot See would make a wonderful read for your book club. A grand story, eloquent language, interesting and sympathetic characters. It is definitely on my top five of 2014 list.
Clair De Lune
This is quite difficult for All The Light We Cannot See due to the youth of the primary characters. A young Emma Watson for Marie-Laure. Werner — I have no idea. But here’s my dream French team.
Daniel LeBlanc — Vincent Cassel
Etienne LeBlanc — Jean Rochefort
Madame Rouelle — Juliette Binoche
Madame Manac, Etienne’s housekeeper — Catherine Deneuve