Thursday, March 12, 2015
All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
531 pages Fiction
I was exhausted and emotionally drained as I read the last page of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which by the way is the most appropriately named book I have read in a long time.
Ostensibly, All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel, of which there are so many currently, including The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, which my book club read in January. All the Light is not an easy book to read; there is so much suffering, so much loss. Sometimes the light is very dim; sometimes there is no light at all. Certainly there is no light in Marie-Laure's eyes, because she was blinded by cataracts as a little girl. Yet she lives in a world of light and discovery because her father teaches her how to live with curiosity and grace in Paris, the city of light. Additionally, it would seem that Werner lives in a lightless world as an orphan in Germany in the buildup to World War II. He, however, lives in a world of light because he is brilliant and filled with a fascination for the technology of the day—radio.
The narration alternates between their two stories. The chapters are very short, and the reader knows that inevitably the paths of the two teenagers will converge, although initially, the reader can't figure out how it will happen. The pages are filled with fascinating characters—the professor who teaches Marie-Laure about snails; the German soldier whose job is to gather up the treasures of the lands defeated by the Germans; the baker who bakes codes for the French Resistance in her bread; the uncle who has not left his house since he returned from World War I. The New York Times review gives an excellent summary of the book. Frankly, it is a book that you have to read for yourself, and each reader will attach meaning and light to the characters, the plot, and the resonance.
The author describes the process of creating the book in an excellent interview on the Powell's book blog. It sheds some light on the process Doerr went through as he dreamed up the book, which took several years of creative thinking to compose. For instance, on a French book tour, he spent a day in the city of Saint-Malo. Totally amazed by the city, he was told that the ancient city had to be rebuilt after a significant battle in 1944.
Here are two of my experiences with the book. Last night, I was sitting at the kitchen table reading about the extreme danger Marie-Laure and Werner were in—each in their own versions of Hell that is war. Meanwhile, in the living room, my husband was watching a PBS special about the careers of Peter, Paul and Mary. Well-known anti-war lyrics were playing in the background as I read on—"Where have all the flowers gone?" and "Blowing in the Wind." I just started sobbing, so anxious for these precious characters. And then I read: "It seemed to Werner that in the space between whatever has happened already and whatever is to come hovers an invisible borderland, the known on one side, and the unknown on the other." All the time I am thinking, "No good will come from this. Where have all the young boys gone?"
I read All the Light We Cannot See as I was also reading Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren. The chapters I taught on Tuesday night dealt with asking God "Why?" These followed chapters about raging against God by shouting "NO!" The point of the chapters is that when you enter a dark tunnel of doubt, pain, and suffering, it may take a very long time to come through the tunnel into the light of understanding. Doerr deals forcefully with this issue as he closes the book by bringing resolution and connections to the characters, who by this time have become much beloved. Long after the war is over, he has one of the characters muse: "Weeks go by when Jutta does not allow herself to think of the war...She does not want to be one of those middle-aged women who thinks of nothing but her own painful history." He also brings resolution to Marie-Laure when she thinks: "Is she happy? For portions of every day, she is happy."
All the Light We Cannot See is profound on many levels. Doerr deserves all the awards that the book has won.