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Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see (Review)

September 30, 2016

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeJust when you thought that there couldn’t possibly be another angle to writing about World War 2, up comes another book that does just that, like, for example, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see. I had, of course, heard of it, but it wasn’t high on my reading agenda until it was chosen as my reading group’s September book. I wasn’t sorry we chose it, because I do, in fact, like World War 2 stories, and Doerr’s turned out to be an engaging one – warm, generous but not sentimental, and highly readable despite its alternating time-frames, locations and characters.

I’ve read several and reviewed some World War 2 novels and memoirs. Many have been about Jews and the Holocaust, such as Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Hans Bergner’s Between sea and sky, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and two memoirs, Halina Rubin’s  Journeys with my mother and Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. A couple have been about the fighters, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. Some have drawn on the perspectives of children and young people – Zusak’s The book thief, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river and, of course, Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl. Doerr’s book fits into this group, but is different again. Zusak’s and Hegi’s girls are non-Jewish Germans, and Anne Frank is of course a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. These books focus on the Holocaust. Doerr’s does not. His interest is the personal experience of his young people – a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, born around 1928, and an orphan German boy, Werner, born around 1927. Their stories – Marie-Laure’s birth in Paris and flight with her father to Saint-Malo after Paris is occupied, and Werner’s childhood and youth in Germany followed by his war experience in Russia, Central Europe and France – are told in parallel until they inevitably meet.

Marie-Laure and Werner are nicely realised characters. They are ordinary young people trying to make a life for themselves in terrible times, but are extraordinary too. Marie-Laure’s childhood-onset blindness makes her initially helpless but she becomes a resourceful and imaginative young girl. Werner, the orphan, is a clever boy who develops a fascination with radios and things electrical. This leads him to a particular role in the war – tracking down partisan-resistance transmitters – that is different from most “soldier” stories.

All the light we cannot see is a big book. It has a wide, but not unwieldy, cast of characters, and a complex structure comprising two chronological sequences, within each of which the stories of our two young people alternate. This might sound difficult or confusing to read, but Doerr handles it well.

I’m not going to write a thorough review of this. Being a top-selling prize-winner, it has been reviewed widely. Instead, I’d like to share some of its themes, or ideas, because these are what interests me most. Before that though, I want to raise one issue. One review I read and some in my reading group expressed irritation at Doerr’s use of American idiom (such as people going “to the bathroom in their pants”). For some reason this sort of issue rarely worries me. Does that make me a bad reader? Perhaps. But it’s difficult, I think, to write in the language of another place and time, and when writers try to do it, it can feel forced. Some manage it (like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang) and some compromise by relying on some well-placed words from an era. Generally, I’m happy for the author to use contemporary-to-them expression.

What you could be (Volkheimer to Werner)

What interests me most as a reader is not whether authors get these sorts of details right but questions like why is the author writing this, why has the author structured the story this way, what does the imagery mean, and so on. It is to the first of these that I’ll turn now. The novel’s overall subject matter is the obvious one – the tragedy of war, the way war destroys people’s lives – but within this are some interesting ideas.

One relates to logic and reason. Early in the novel, Marie-Laure’s locksmith father believes (or, perhaps, wants to believe) in logic:

Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key.

This idea is reiterated in the book Marie-Laure is given by her father, Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea:

Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.

The opposing view, however, is put by Werner late in the war when he is tracking resistance transmitters:

Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.

Logic and reason may work well enough in “normal” life, but during war they can stand for very little.

Somewhat related to this are the discussions about curses and luck. A major plot line concerns an ancient gem, the Sea of Flames diamond, which is said to carry a curse. It’s surely not by chance (ha-ha) that Doerr hides this stone behind the 13th door in the museum, and that his novel has 13 sections! Anyhow, here is Marie-Laure’s father on curses and luck. There are, he says:

no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.

AND

Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

Later though, when her father has been arrested and Marie-Laure is scared and alone, she conducts an imaginary conversation with him:

You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.

In almost every story I’ve read about war – fiction and non-fiction – luck has played a significant role. It’s one of the things that makes war so scary. You cannot expect reason to prevail.

Finally, related to these two ideas is that of choice:

Frederick [Werner’s friend at Schulpforta, the Nazi training school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices …

Frederick, in fact, chose to exercise his choice by refusing to follow orders and he suffered the consequences, while Werner did as he was told – at school and later in the field (“they do as they’re told”) and suffered the consequences in a different way. Late in the novel, Werner meets Marie-Laure:

He says, “You are very brave.”
She lowers the bucket. “What is your name?”
He tells her. She says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” 

These and similar discussions thread through the book. They remind us that in war survival is largely a matter of “luck”, that reason and logic will only get you so far when you confront the chaos of war, and that, perhaps paradoxically, you do have choices even if they are between two unappealing alternatives. The ultimate tragedy is that war destroys “what you could be” – all those talents, all those dreams, are subsumed into the business of survival.

This is not a perfect book. It’s a bit sprawling, trying to do a lot with imagery that I haven’t been able to completely untangle. And I wonder about the necessity of the final decades-later chapters. However, it is a page-turning read and produced a lively discussion in my bookgroup. I’m glad I read it.

Anthony Doerr
All the light we cannot see
London: Fourth Estate, 2014
531pp.
ISBN: 9780007548682 (eBook)

30 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim KABLE permalink
    September 30, 2016 10:53 pm

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it. Luck/caprice – pretty much the same thing I reckon. Ann Frank was actually German (Jewish) though the family after moving from Germany had some years in The Netherlands before the Nazi invasion and their hidden existence. I worked in Sydney many years ago with someone who had a family connection to the Frank family – she spent some years in a Japanese internment camp context in what us now Indonesia. And like so many – read The Diary with classes in secondary schools in the 1970s – and twice within that decade visited the house in Amsterdam where the Frank family was for so long hidden – but not quite for long enough – alas. Nevertheless had other good friends from the post-war era to Australia from The Netherlands who played their part in the underground railway – hiding and moving along downed British airmen, people identified as Jewish – or young Dutch men evading transfer to work in German “war factories” in Germany. Books such as the one under review make us think – about how we might have acted in similar wartime contexts – and from that – to how we should act in these days of “Children-overboard,” of “On-water-matters,” – of Manus and Nauru. Do we stand up or do we look away!

    • September 30, 2016 11:31 pm

      Yes, I agree Jim, these war books certainly can focus our minds on the decisions we are making today.

      Thanks for the info on Anne Frank. I knew I should have double-checked that. We too have a few Dutch contacts who worked in the Dutch resistance. Brave, brave people.

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    September 30, 2016 10:55 pm

    …in what is now Indonesia…

    • September 30, 2016 11:32 pm

      Those darned typos. We should be able to edit our own comments I think.

      Anyhow, glad you enjoyed the book too. it’s very readable, and has some interesting things to say.

  3. September 30, 2016 11:58 pm

    I enjoyed your review. I have not been much interested in reading the book because it has been everywhere and I am tired of hearing about it. The hype is settling down now but the bad taste of the marketing machine still lingers. Maybe eventually I will read it since you make it sound pretty good.

    • October 1, 2016 8:53 am

      Over here we probably got less of the marketing machine, Stefanie, plus I do a pretty good job of avoiding the marketing hype I think. It’s not a perfect novel but despite our different niggles everyone in my reading group really enjoyed it.

  4. October 1, 2016 12:36 am

    Outstanding review, Sue! Thanks. The book was written so beautifully, capturing some kind of essence of something i don’t know what. The ending was appropriate to me because I’d got so involved with the characters – I had to know what eventually happened to them – even fictionally.

    Also, thanks for the way you structured your own review. Rather than spending time on the plot (which as you said can be found elsewhere) you focused on the themes. I may try a bit more of that with my reviews.

    • October 1, 2016 8:58 am

      Thanks Bekah … yes, I understand that reason for wanting the later chapters. I liked them for that reason too. But were they necessary artistically, thematically?

      As for plot, I get really bored with discussing plot which is why I don’t do much of it. In this one I nearly published it without describing Marie-Laure and Werner’s main geographical trajectory. I think it did need that!

      • October 1, 2016 10:43 am

        Thematically maybe not, but it certainly puts the kabosh on any idea any reader might have that there is a romantic ending somewhere in the future. I remember reading somewhere that Doerr was not going to have that happen and it can’t even be read into what did transpire. –

        • October 1, 2016 12:15 pm

          Yes, I guess it does do that. I love that Doerr was not going to have a romance!

  5. October 1, 2016 1:19 am

    I was moved by this book, Sue, but not blown away as it seems so many others were.

    Excellent review – thanks so much.

  6. October 1, 2016 2:20 am

    I’ve often thought of this luck vs self-determination in terms of the Normandy invasion, how it is more analagous to hatchling turtles making it into the surf than coherent strategy. History is written by survivors, so I think there’s an unwarranted bias towards optimism.

    I was just doing some reading about the post-WWI political machinations between Stalin and Hitler. It opened my eyes to the fact that our American lens views WWII in terms of events in western Europe, when what Germany became between the wars was determined eastward, in the game of patty-cake Hitler and Stalin played with Poland,among other things.

    But the biggest eye-opener was just the scale of killing, beginning in the USSR well before WWII, and how mass butchery became a political and economic commonplace, sort of like adjusting interest rates and currency valuation nowadays.

    I downloaded a book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, as a reviewer said it put a human face on the mass killing. The prose is horrible and I can’t read it past page 30 or so, but it at least purports to, through anecdotes and surviving personal accounts. But the takeaway is that millions were simply overwhelmed by events, and survival was nearly 100% capricious.

    • October 1, 2016 9:08 am

      Thanks Phil, and welcome. I love your turtle hatchlings analogy. This issue – luck vs self-determination – really struck me in Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. There was some self-determination there, but even when it was there it was mostly supported by luck too. When you read Holocaust stories and see so many die, you wonder how any survived and you can’t help but realise that for most it was mostly pure luck. Did you end up in Schindler’s factory, did you run into a German soldier who decided to turn a blind eye, did you meet that Japanese man, Sugihara, who handed out passports, etc.

      And thanks for your ideas re Hitler, Stalin and Germany. I had heard a little of that, but a long time ago. What a shame that book is poorly written.

  7. October 1, 2016 9:41 am

    Interesting book which I enjoyed although I agree with your remarks on the revisiting several decades later chapters. I think the same strategy spoiled wonderful novels like The Poisonwood Bible and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I’m not sure why so many writers feel the need to tie up loose ends in this way, particularly literary novelists. Leaving stories open ended, I think, gives them more power and resonance.

    • October 1, 2016 10:33 am

      Thanks Ian … yes, exactly re those later chapters. Good for you remembering examples. I’ve read those but I couldn’t remember them when I was writing this.

  8. Meg permalink
    October 1, 2016 9:43 am

    A great review Sue. I found the book hard going at times, but the characters kept me interested all the way to the end of the story. I read today in the New York Times, that All the light We Cannot see is still on the best seller list after 125 weeks.

    • October 1, 2016 10:36 am

      Wow Meg … 125 weeks! Yes, I agree that he captures those two young people in particular really beautifully. You want to follow them. Hard going because of the brutality? One of the things I liked about the book is that he didn’t dwell on brutality, didn’t describe it any more than he had to. The focus, I thought, was the people and how it affected them, and not the horror itself.

      • Lithe lianas permalink
        October 2, 2016 5:46 pm

        Yes, I liked that he didn’t dwell on the brutality and thought that by handling it this way the reader’s imagination fills in what follows thus making it more powerful and memorable. I think this novel is WWII’s equal to WWI’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and should be on every parliamentarian’s compulsory reading list.

        • October 2, 2016 7:12 pm

          Haha, good one LL (re parliamentarian’s reading list, I mean). I still must read All quiet … mustn’t I?

  9. October 2, 2016 4:35 am

    I didn’t expect to love this one, either, Sue, but I found myself turning the pages for the same reasons you’ve given in your excellent review. The vulnerability of both characters is what remains with me most clearly.

    • October 2, 2016 9:13 am

      Thanks Amanda. Interesting how many of us felt that – great main characters but the whole didn’t quite come together.

      • ian darling permalink
        October 3, 2016 8:14 pm

        A sprawling fiction about World War Two – haven’t there been quite a lot of these over the years? Does this novel really justify itself? Does it simply reveal the enduring appetite for large novels that might have come out 30 or 40 years ago? As you can guess this doesn’t really appeal and I’m not so sure there has ever been a really satisfactory “big” novel about WW2. Perhaps Vassily Grossman’s Life And Fate is an exception – I will have to rescue it from the TBR pile!

        • October 3, 2016 9:27 pm

          No fair enough Ian. My reading group didn’t really agree with my characterising it as a big baggy monster a la nineteenth century. Its style is modern … shorter chapters for a start, alternating POVs and chronologies … but in feel it’s big and baggy to me. I did enjoy the characters, and the weaving through the story of things like radio technology, but my favourite WW2 novels tend to be tighter, and more focused.

  10. NeilAtKallaroo permalink
    January 10, 2017 5:12 am

    This book is mooted as the first read for a putative book club, and seeing you mention it in your annual round-up, I thought I’d jump right in. I found it easy to read (took just over a day – got to be some benefit to being retired), and had no problems handling the different point of views and chronologies. The tension leading up to the climax was amazing. But I don’t know whether to say it was a wonderful story or a horrible story. At least it wasn’t clichéd!

    • January 10, 2017 2:01 pm

      Ah Neil… Being retired hasn’t resulted in an improved rate of reading for me at all. I’m doing something wrong, I know! Putative bookclub? Tell me more.

      Anyhow, glad you “liked” the book too.

      • NeilAtKallaroo permalink
        January 10, 2017 8:27 pm

        LOL. I am having problems with my adjectives. Serves me right for posting at 2 in the morning. Replace “horrible” with “horrendous”. And replace “putative” with “possible”. A group of friends are getting together next Monday to chat about the whys and wheres and whens and whats of a book club. I was in one many years ago discussing works of science fiction. I’ll keep you posted.

        • January 11, 2017 8:41 am

          I know all about posting at 2 in the morning.

          And yes do keep me posted, Neil. Reading groups can be wonderful. You could do a reading group blog which is a great way of keeping a permanent record of what you read.

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