All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”

All the Light is so gorgeously written, so well crafted, that as it unfurls before its reader, it seems almost magical. It is a book that cannot be rushed but instead must be contemplated, a work of art that is meant to be slowly consumed and digested, more than read. Usually an uncommonly fast reader, I found that this book took more than a week of pondering over to complete. It simply offered far too much — too many amazing passages, too many thought-provoking events — to be hurried.

It seems somewhat incomprehensible that a book about the horrors and indignities of war could be beautiful, but this novel is breathtakingly so. Like the themes of radios that prevail throughout, sending invisible messages across the continent, making the large world seem smaller and more connected, Doerr takes a subject as huge and complex as war and makes it human and understandable. Using his two main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr tells the larger story of Europe’s path into and out of war through their personal experiences, giving us a story that is relatable and cogent. While we may never understand the motives of Germans who followed Hitler, or Frenchmen who rebelled even though their lives were at risk, the author can help us understand the thoughts and motivations of two children, using their specific stories to paint a more comprehensible picture of war.

The story follows the lives of two children: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a brilliant but impoverished German orphan. Through Marie-Laure we learn of the occupation of Paris, the flight of Parisians to the countryside, and of life in French town, Saint Malo, occupied by the Germans for more than two years, and Saint Malo’s violent liberation by the Americans. More, it is through her story that we learn of the great treasures of Europe looted, stolen, and hoarded by the Nazis. While those larger lessons are important, we also meet Marie-Laure the girl. We come to know her as a girl who loves stories, adventures, science, and the miracles of nature, things that continue to fascinate and thrill her during the occupation. Her verve for life makes her indefatigable in her belief that life will improve.

In Werner, we see an orphaned boy who is desperate to be able to put his brilliant mind to work, who fears nothing more than a life spent working in the coal mines toward an early death. When offered a chance to go to school to learn to be a soldier and engineer for the Third Reich, he does not hesitate, willingly accepting the indignities of being molded into a Nazi-zealot in exchange for the knowledge his teachers bestow upon him. Werner shows us the machine at work behind Hitler and his armies, the planning, the manipulation, the brainwashing, the loyalty that was given under punishment of death. His story is one of German successes and failures on the battlefield, of how Germans were swept up in the Reich’s tide, and of the atrocities of war. Like Marie-Laure, he is more than just a vehicle to discuss Nazi Germany. He is a boy whose mind is alive with math, science, inventions, improvements, and wonder. His longing to learn led him to become complicit in horrible things, and he is haunted by them throughout the novel.

The stories of these two characters and those around them are threaded loosely together at the start of the novel, but as the story progresses, the two are drawn closer and closer to one another. Doerr expertly weaves their stories together so that by the time they meet it seems as if the universe has been plotting for the intersection of their lives all along. Indeed the entire novel seems to reveal an invisible net which links every single person — alive and dead — to everyone else, so that every story is really our story and vice versa.

Woven throughout the book are themes centering on creating order from chaos, especially with regard to creating a life even among the devastations of war. Like the radios Werner so competently takes apart and reassembles in working order: the Reich believes that they are using science and knowledge to re-order the world in favor of Germany above all else. The Nazis feverishly look to science and technology for the answers to controlling chaos. Werner’s teachers tell him directly,  “There must be order. Life is chaos and what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon.” Werner himself must become like a machine, overlooking the horrific demands of the Reich. Muting his mind to his own objections, he moves forward with his education, perfecting his radio transmitters, blind to the implications.

Simultaneously, Doerr repeatedly examines the other side of science, the unending progress of nature. Birds, shells, the sea — all things both purposeful and beautiful, following observable patterns and paths, without concern for the war ravaging the continent. Like the birds that soar over icy Schulpforta schoolyard where boys are turned into Nazi soldiers, or like Marie-Laure’s beloved snails moving centimeter by centimeter day in and day out, the characters must  also work to maintain normalcy even in face of turmoil and fear. Marie-Laure adjusts to her blindness, to Saint Malo, to being trapped in the house, to losing her father; she determinedly lives despite all of the setbacks. The characters make note of the sadness of a world that never pauses; after dealing with yet another death Marie-Laure observes that  “a house spider spins a new web every night, and to Marie Laure this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause even for an instant in its trip around the sun.”

Upon finishing, I feel that I not only know more about the war — the people who created it and those who fought on and off the battlefields — but also much more about resilience of people who survived it. The story is amazing most of all in presenting characters who go on and on and on living — fighting, running, loving, resisting, bring thrilled by the world around them — in spite of the war’s determination to defeat them. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”

stmalo5

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