Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book Review "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. When I say beautifully written, I am mainly focusing on the detail of the language. Every writer has a different style and a different writing process, but Doerr's attention to word choice in creating beautiful images is meticulous. For anyone who has gone through a writing workshop I will say it like this: Doerr took the scalpel to his writing and pared down the language for a clean and crisp delivery of description and metaphor like in poetry. It took Doerr ten years to write this book, and I felt that time and deliberation in every chosen word.

This type of literary lyricism isn't for every reader and neither is the cutting back in forth through time in the narrative. The third person present tense allows this kind of movement through time, but if a reader isn't paying close attention they may be thrown by unidentified shifts in the story's timeline.

The narrative is primarily told from the limited perspectives of two characters that are only children as WWII encroaches, and are teenagers when the war ends. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. If you are familiar with WWII history, or perhaps The Monuments Men, then you may have heard that upon the Nazi invasion of France all of the precious works of art that define human culture throughout time were hunted down for inclusion in Hitler's own Fuhrermuseum that would be the pinnacle of all culture as he saw it. However, the French knew the German's were coming and they took certain precautions. Marie-Laure's father is part of the Museum of Natural History's contingency plan. So, upon the occupation of Paris, he and Marie-Laure flee the city and wind up with his WWI shell-shocked Uncle Etienne in the coastal town of Saint-Malo carrying something precious with them.

Marie-Laure is an extraordinary character. When she loses her sight as a child her father doesn't allow her to wallow in self-pity or succumb to a life of dependency. He works to make an exact replica of their neighborhood so that she can memorize the model and embark on the streets on her own. Also, as a locksmith, he is gifted in the area of creating difficult physical puzzles that Marie-Laure must unlock, thus sharpening her mind and preparing her for figuring her own way through physical challenges that she cannot see.

The other main character is a German boy named Werner Pfennig. Werner and his younger sister Yutta are orphans raised in the coal town where their father died. While they live their youth in coal dust, Werner knows that his future lay in the place of his father's grave. However, Werner is not your average child. He has a mind for machines and mathematics, specifically, radios. He builds a radio for he and Yutta and together they discover a French broadcast that introduces them to engaging scientific thought. "What do we call visible light?" the Frenchman from the broadcast asks. "We call it color. But...really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible." These words become a theme, as well as a very intricately woven thread that ties the two stories together.

Werner's aptitude is recognized within the small coal town fueling the fuhrer's war, and he is sent off to a school designed, like a machine, to mold young minds and build soldiers. Werner's initial gratefulness at having been rescued from the fate of the coal mines soon fades as he slowly realizes he is obedient to authority without question. His sister remains his moral staple, though most of their correspondence is censured by the school.

There is another character who gets some perspective time in the narrative, and that is Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel. Von Rumpel is symbolic of the entire Nazi regime. His perspective begins along with his hunt for the fabled Sea of Flames; a precious diamond that was duplicated and sent off in four different directions upon the Nazi occupation of Paris. One of those directions was with the locksmith and his blind daughter. No one carrying a duplication of the diamond knows if they have the real one, they only know that they must keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. Von Rumpel's cold and calculated cruelty begins to take on a desperate air as he is diagnosed with cancer. This is smartly paralleled with the crumbling of the Nazi hold on Europe, for as Hitler's desperation grows, so does von Rumpel's pursuit for the stone that he thinks will save his life, for the Sea of Flames is said to make one immortal.

Werner is eventually sent into the war before he is of age as the Nazi's become desperate to crush the rising resistance transmitted through radio broadcasts. Werner is able to triangulate and locate the broadcasts and he and a small team of soldiers set out to destroy the resistance.

Meanwhile, Marie-Laure has become a part of the French resistance, and as it turns out it was her grandfather's broadcasts that stirred Werner and Yutta as children. And the same radio transmitting equipment is now being used to broadcast messages to allies. Sometimes, after a transmission of numbers arrived at through a loaf of bread, Marie-Laure's great-uncle Etienne replays some of those recorded broadcasts - and this is where the two stories collide.

Werner must decide if he will follow his orders and report the identification of the broadcast, or if he will listen to the moral certitude of his sister's voice in his head. His discovery of the beautiful blind girl residing at the residence of the signal only complicates matters. Meanwhile, von Rumpel has found the LeBlanc's during the bombing of Saint-Malo by allied forces, and Marie-Laure is trapped in her house with the diamond-hunter dying beneath her as she hides in the attic.

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion with all these story lines converging at one place in time. Yet, do not expect a romantic denouement - this is WWII after all. It's a heartbreaking, haunting and beautiful read. I totally recommend it not only for historical fiction fans, but for anyone who loves a story sculpted with rich language.

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” 
-All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr



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