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

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 last 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)