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DessReviews: All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr


Ten years in the writing. Five hundred-thirty pages in length. A New York Times best seller.

Bounteous, fastidious, painstakingly researched, rapidly delivered lapidary prose awaits readers of this epic novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

Structurally the book is divided into years, from the 1930s up until 2014, but the novel’s action centers around the time period immediately preceding and during World War II. Within the division of years the book is further divided into short sections (some no more than a paragraph or two, others as long as a page or two), each provided with a title, eg, He Is Not Coming Back, Everything Poisoned, Sixth Floor Bedroom, The Stone, Weakest. The linearity of the plot and simultaneity of events taking place in both France and Germany is masterfully made invisible by shifting geographical locations and time frames. Like a feuilleton, each of the short segments is linked to the episodic plot to create suspense and to keep the reader turning the page.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind girl who lives in Paris, France, with her father, a talented locksmith who works at the Natural History Museum. Werner Pfenning is a German orphan boy, who lives in Zollverein, Germany, a small, grim mining town. The main story line involves their wartime adventures and their brief and uncanny meeting.

It is wartime and late at night, in Werner’s room at the orphanage, he and his sister Jutta secretly listen to foreign radio stations. Werner is mesmerized by a voice that comes through the radio’s speaker in feathery, accented French that speaks of both natural and scientific things, the very things he is most curious about in life. One night the mysterious broadcaster concludes his talk with the words: Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever. An invitation to live life to the fullest, to experience all that one can be before it is too late.

The war rages on and the Germans invade France and Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris and travel to the ancient, seaside town of Saint-Malo. In a subplot worthy of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Arc, her father has been given a precious, but perhaps cursed gemstone from the museum, The Sea of Flames, to take with him to keep it from falling into Nazi hands. In Saint-Malo they take refuge with Etienne LeBlanc, Marie-Laure’s uncle who came back from Word War I not the same as when he left. He rarely leaves his room and hasn’t gone out of doors in years. Hidden in the attic of the house are radios: in fact, the radio transmissions that Werner heard and fell in love with were broadcast by Marie-Laure’s grandfather from this very house.

Sometime after their arrival in Saint-Malo Marie-Laure’s father is mysteriously called back to Paris by telegram. He never arrives there and his whereabouts remain unknown until a letter from him arrives informing Marie-Laure that he has been imprisoned. As the Germans tighten their grip on Saint-Malo, Etienne takes up the cause of the Free French. He begins to use the one radio that has not been surrendered to the Nazis to send out coded transmissions for the French Resistance. Marie-Laure does her part for the resistance, too, delivering the coded messages that are baked into loaves of bread to her uncle. Eventually Etienne is arrested and, like Marie-Laure’s father, imprisoned.

During this time Werner has been saved both from the misery of working in the mines and from being sent to the Russian front to fight, by his gift for mathematics and his ability to fix and build radios. He is sent to a Hitler Youth school, the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, where he is indoctrinated in Nazi ideology. While he senses something maybe awry with the way his life is turning out, he cannot articulate what it is: He is being loyal. He is being what everyone agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.

Shortly thereafter, Werner betrays his closest friend, a frail, aesthetically inclined boy, who watches birds and cherishes books by Audubon. Frederick is constantly ostracized by the other boys and often beaten for being the weakest. One freezing cold February morning all the boys are called outside by the commander. In the quadrangle they see a nearly naked prisoner who has been cuffed and tied to a stake. The commander tells them the man is a degenerate criminal and calls upon each boy to douse the prisoner with a bucket full of cold water. The boys line up and one by one begin taking turns throwing water on him. All the boys cheer when the prisoner collapses and is obviously near death. Werner throws his water on the dying man like all the others, but Frederick refuses. He pours the water on the ground in front of the prisoner. Given another bucket he repeats his defiance. I will not, Frederick tells the commander, and in his refusal to take part in this atrocity he transforms himself from the weakest to the strongest boy in the school. But he is a solitary individual incapable of defending himself against his Nazi-indoctrinated classmates, and Werner, his only friend, does nothing to help him. Finally, Frederick is beaten so badly he is removed from the school for an operation and never returns.

Werner’s electrical expertise and knowledge of radios enables him to pinpoint the source of allied radio broadcasts. He and his team travel through German occupied territories: Prague, Minsk, Ljubljana, in search of radio transmissions from resisters. They mercilessly liquidate the broadcasters when they find them. Eventually they are called to Saint-Malo to locate the transmissions aiding the local resistance groups, and Werner is charged with finding the specific house sending out the broadcasts. It doesn’t take Werner long to locate the transmission. But upon hearing the tenor of the voice matching in every respect the broadcasts of the Frenchman he used to hear, and then a piano, he immediately understands that the broadcasts must be the same as those from years ago that he and his sister used to listen to. And while he locates the antenna from which the transmission is coming he does not reveal the location to his superior.

The climactic scene of the book occurs when for one brief moment the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner crisscross, and this time, unlike his previous passivity in the face of Frederick’s persecution, Werner takes action to do something good.

The story is told in the present tense. The declarative sentences rush one along, one after the other, carrying the reader from one paragraph to another, one page to the next, chapter to chapter:

Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sofas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts like tides; they splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dust; ash chases smoke. A newsstand floats, burning.

Mr. Doerr’s pyrotechnic imbrication of detailed description creates a sensation of depth and density and this adds to the verisimilitude of the images he conjures up. Yet, none of the surfeit of facts he layers on works toward penetrating the inner minds of his characters and he does not reveal or examine his characters’ emotional states or moral outlook, which would, in all likelihood, slow down the thrilling, breakneck speed at which this story unfolds. The characters play out their roles on a stage of a beautifully constructed mise-en-scène, but they remain wooden marionettes: Mr. Doerr pulls their strings in the service of the story and manipulates them with such impeccable skill that their lack of interiority or, for that matter, personality, is not noticed.

In his acknowledgments Mr. Doerr mentions a debt to Michel Tournier’s The Orgre. It is beyond the scope of this quick review to examine contrasts and similarities between these books, however, in contradistinction to All the Light We Cannot See, Tournier’s wartime novel (set in Germany) is an exceedingly dense allegory, or meditation on good and evil and innocence. Its hero, Abel Tiffauges (who is perhaps an idiot savant and who has, perhaps, something in common with the perversions Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and the innocence of Prince Myshkin) possesses a deep interior life that is immensely complicated and almost indecipherable. Largely a novel of deep reflection, The Orgre is a psychological and ontological investigation, not a thriller like the book under review.

A French forbearer of Werner perhaps worth mentioning is the protagonist of Louis Malle’s dramatic and disturbing 1974 film of wartime France, Lacombe, Lucien (the screenplay co-written by the 2014 Nobel Prize winner, Patrick Mondiano, a French author who writes elegantly and hauntingly about wartime France). Lucien, the film’s eponymous main character, tries to join the French resistance, but they won’t take him. So instead he collaborates with the French fascists and the Gestapo and, like Werner, he helps hunt down members of the resistance. His motives, like Werner’s, remain mostly opaque. The evident pleasure Lucien derives from feeling important as a member of the local fascist organization and the benefits he accrues from his position of power, which lets him escape his peasant upbringing, matches Werner’s feeling of relief at having escaped being forced to work in the coal mines or to fight at the Russian front, and to receive a free education as a bonus. These youths are not necessarily callow, but they are largely disengaged from their actions.

The chosen political affiliations of these boys allow them to participate in the heady world events of their day. Their membership in their respective political and military parties entitles them to hope they can transcend their current condition. The moral implications of the organizations that they aid and abet do not appear to greatly matter to either of them. Werner dutifully pinpoints the sites of radio transmissions and stands by as the broadcasters are unceremoniously murdered by his squad. Lucien can watch with indifference as members of the French resistance are tortured in his presence.

The closest Werner comes to pondering his situation comes late in the novel:

It seems 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.

If this is intended to be reflection, or the beginning of self-examination, it is uninformative and banal and purports to tell us only what we already know about every situation: there is what we know, and there is what we don’t know. Statements of this type are true by definition and are tautologies, which give us no knowledge about the world. And it is this absence of presentation of self-knowledge that makes Werner, and all the others in this novel, characters without character.

But, this is a picturesque novel, not a not a bildungsroman, not a novel of ideas or a psychological study or a meditation on good and evil. Despite the caveats above, Mr Doerr has written a lyrical page-turner that holds one’s interest from beginning to end.