I get why it took Anthony Doerr 10 years to write this novel.
All the Light We Cannot See is an intricate story of two protagonists: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl living in 1944 Saint-Malo, and Werner Pfennig, a child prodigy with a knack for electrical circuitry. When Marie loses her sight at the age of six to cataracts, her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, constructs detailed miniature models of the city for her to memorize. He goes to extraordinary lengths to help her adapt to her blindness as the war approaches, and as the bombs begin to drop, Marie’s extreme perceptiveness with her four remaining senses provides a tense and fresh portrayal of modern history’s most brutal war. Meanwhile, Werner and his sister, Jutta, live in an orphanage. As Werner grows older, he learns that the German government will send him to work in the coal mines when he comes of age — the same coal mines responsible for the death of his father — but his talent for repairing radios unlocks new opportunities as the war lurks closer.
I was prepared to engage with this book the same way I engage with many WWII narratives: with respectful appreciation and melancholy for any author’s ability to create another piece of art out of something so deeply tragic. Instead, I found myself completely engrossed in this lyrical novel teetering on the fringes of a traditional Holocaust story. In All the Light We Cannot See, we are taken from the streets of a coastal French town — a town that becomes a casualty of wartime bombing — to inside German schools riddled with propaganda. We observe objects like a priceless gem and a radio with the ability to bring people, seemingly worlds apart, together. We look at the complicated, nuanced sides of war and the civilians on both sides engaging in their own difficult moral decisions. These narratives weave a story together that explores a fresh side of this history and the act of writing itself.
All the Light We Cannot See
Simon and Schuster (May 6, 2014)
Doerr uses challenging literary techniques to tell this layered story. Each chapter could almost be described as a vignette, some only lasting for two or three pages, others ending after only half a page. Doerr’s previous work could be described as dense, especially when reading his short stories, so translating his compact attention to detail into a novel with an incredible amount of characterization and plot to cover made me wonder how his style would recalibrate. Fans of Doerr may be grateful for the negative space and frequent breaks throughout the narrative, since each chapter feels encapsulated like poetry, celebrating all the senses through descriptive prose that dances with smells, taste, sight, sound and touch all at once. Each page is a love letter to the physicality of the world, and it almost seemed like I was doing the book a disservice by powering through them each night before bed.
There is much to digest in so few pages, like for instance, when Werner, now at war, laments over his sister’s persistent questions about the German service in her letters. “Jutta sends letters that the school censor blacks out almost completely. She asks questions that should not be asked,” he says. He dreads sending her a response: “I am fine; I am so busy.” His commandant, Bastian, tells him, “You have minds… but minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.” All of these actions occur in close to three pages. We receive a near-snapshot of Werner’s experience in the military, yet it is part of a complex mosaic that reveals the damaging psychology behind Nazism affecting the young boys and men at the time. Doerr is able to splice together big ideas in these short vignettes, leaving behind a world full of layered ideas.
These snapshots create a reading experience of urgency, especially since the entire novel is written in the present tense, a fitting and intelligent stylistic choice for Doerr. This theme of immediacy is present throughout the novel, propelling the characters forward at their most crucial moments. Doerr uses the present tense to his advantage during a scene where Marie hides in her grandfather’s attic as a German soldier searchers the house: “Slow the heart. Flex your feet. Make no sound. She presses her ear to the false panel on the back of the wardrobe. What does she hear? Moths gnawing away at her grandfather’s ancient smocks? Nothing.” Doerr’s utilization of the present tense creates an opportunity for surprise and brevity during Marie’s crucial, fearful moment. The narrator continues: “Crack. Pause. Crack. Pause. Then the long scream as the shell comes flying in, the fhump as it explodes on an outer island. A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts.” Even when the characters are at their youngest they cope with themes of fear and urgency, from Marie’s frantic fear of the cacophony of France’s streets as she attempts to navigate her way back home without sight to Hitler’s desperate search for a priceless gem thought to hold a sinister curse. These arcs shape and reveal the characters’ need for self-preservation and manipulation, and it is this immediacy that is necessary to survive in a dangerous, war-torn Europe. Even Werner is motivated by the urgency to escape the guilt of embracing a Nazi system that ultimately destroys his best friend’s life.
Despite the limitations set on these characters, whether it’s due to physical ailments or location and political turmoil, both Werner and Marie are determined to explore beyond their small worlds. Werner repairs a radio during his time at the orphanage that he and his sister use to listen to everything from worldwide news broadcasts to Russian fashion tips. Werner becomes particularly taken with a weekly broadcast by an unknown speaker who delves into the world of science and engineering. He ends a lesson by saying, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”Werner continues to struggle with this concept as he ages, knowing his skills in mechanical engineering could unlock new opportunities and save him from the coal mines, yet this exposure to the world outside of German propaganda helps him think critically and see through the manipulation of the German military programs. Meanwhile, Marie, with the assistance of her father, uses her heightened senses to see beyond the world. The narrator says, “Color. That’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color… Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the feel of a lock tumbler sliding home… he is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook.” When these two characters who are so driven for knowledge and hungry for the world finally collide, the results are captivating.
So, I get why it took Anthony Doerr 10 years to scribe this detailed, nuanced, intricate story of characters on different sides of war and the paradoxes that accompany them. All the Light We Cannot See is much more than a WWII story. It is an iridescent, lyrical admiration of the five senses and a writer’s ability to translate them into words. It is an investigation into the stories that ask difficult questions about the nature of war, exploring themes of moral ambiguity and invisibility. It is a piece of art, carefully constructed like a shimmering, sunlit web. Doerr repeatedly asks the reader to “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,” yet, all of the senses are cracked open throughout this tender exploration of the human heart.
Doerr video on the origins of All the Light We Cannot See
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.