Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 

By: Richard E. Gower

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of those works of fiction that (for me) carries within it as an emotional algorithm the hidden subtext of What if? It compels readers to place themselves into the story, identify with the characters and ask themselves: what if it was me? What would I have done?

For those who may have missed it, All the Light We Cannot See won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and an Australian International Book Award as well as a number of other literary plaudits. This, in spite of some fault-finding reviews when the book was released, is vindication of its ultimate merit. Excellence has a way of finding a path out into the open, like light will inevitably escape from a closed room through the smallest gap or crack.

The book is set mainly over a period that spans World War II and explores the lives of two children, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and a German boy, Werner Pfennig, in parallel plotlines. Their stories are complementary and intertwined throughout by the circumstances of the war and the narrative moves the two characters – who are on opposite sides because of their nationalities – inexorably toward each other.

I found an underlying literary leitmotif throughout the book that has fate (although it was never stated as such) as the principal determinant of human events. A romanticist’s viewpoint, perhaps, (and I plead guilty to that) but the author’s skilful use of plot devices that are critical to the conjoining stories of the two main characters bears out this observation.

For example, the lives of these two young people would not have come together in this fictional but eminently believable account of the travesties of that particular war, except for radio, which was an essential instrument in the day to day lives and actions of both characters. So, because radio was also a natural consequence of scientific advancement at that time and an omnipresent tool of the war itself, it was inevitable that their paths would cross. In other words, their intersection in the theatre of war was fated.

Others might disagree, but an aspect of the book that I found significantly heightened the reading experience for me was the foreshadowing of a central event to the story – the Allies’ bombing of the historic walled city of Saint-Malo – at intervals throughout the plot. Snippets of narrative leading up to this climax were inserted chronologically as the storyline progressed.

Anthony Doerr has stated that All the Light We Cannot See took him ten years to write and that a good part of that was taken up with research. This long period of incubation appears to have paid off with interest. His descriptions of the events of wartime Europe that happened more than seventy years ago and more than thirty years before he was born are rich in detail, right down to the specifics of the radio equipment used by Nazi Germany.

Another appeal of this novel (for me) was its essence of fable. The author has stated that one of his early influences as a writer was the work of C.S. Lewis, and this shines out from between the covers. Early on, he introduces an element into the storyline in the form of a valuable gemstone with mysterious unexplainable qualities called the Sea of Flames (“as blue as the sea, but with a flare of red at its core,”) which remained an intermittent focal point of the narrative until the end of the book; a delightful bit of whimsy.

With the current level of micromanagement in the publishing industry today, the fact that All the Light We Cannot See made it into the mainstream of fiction with the Sea of Flames still intact as a fanciful plot element is to me somewhat of a miracle. I can only imaging the internecine arguments and struggles that probably took place behind the scenes as fifty-seven varieties of people pushed, poked, second-guessed and pigeonholed the author’s creation into a particular genre for marketing purposes.

One can only speculate as to the reasons that it found its equilibrium, gained widespread general readership and acceptance and went on to win its numerous awards and acclamations. One testament to its success however has to be the author’s marvelous way with words.

Consider this passage where the blind Marie-Laure visualizes her new home, the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo.

“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 the shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marches two miles away … 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.”

Another factor (I hadn’t thought of this until my wife pointed it out) could be the underlying motif of the power and influence of words and music as a positive force in people’s lives; the German orphan child, Werner, was fascinated by the stories he heard over the air after he had repaired the radio. This influence became a central tenet of the story, and, arguably, may well be the subconscious kernel of the book’s almost universal appeal among readers.

Then there’s the What if? factor.  Would you willingly flout the law of the land in secret for what you believed was a just cause if you knew by doing it you faced imprisonment or possible execution by the government? Would you betray your country to save a human life if faced with the same penalties?  Although this book hearkens back to a terrible period in recent history before the experience of most people alive now, today’s readers can identify with it because the atrocities perpetrated during that time have been ingrained in the public consciousness, and in some parts of the world still continue to exist.  So readers will find it easy to imagine themselves faced with the same dangerous moral and ethical choices of Anthony Doerr’s characters who struggle with conflicting loyalties amid the senselessness and brutality of war.

All the Light We Cannot See is a powerful, elegantly-written and haunting account that explores humanity’s grossest failings and its greatest triumphs. At the nub, it is about the spirit of love and kindness prevailing in the face of statist fanaticism, organized cruelty and violence, punitive zealotry and the mindless and destructive forces of science and mechanization harnessed by humans for war.   Highly recommended and keep some tissue handy.   REG

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