"All The Light We Cannot See"

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

There is so much going on in this book I hardly know where to begin. It's crammed full of characters, plot lines, and timelines, though it is written in short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph or two on a page, which makes it easier to process. It's written in thirteen sections but I couldn't see much logic in the divisions until I made a list of the sections and the main ideas presented in each one. I have difficulty understanding things if I can't put them in some kind of order or see the plan they are laid out in, so sometimes drawing "maps" of stories brings clarity. If I hadn't been leading a discussion at book club I probably would have simply read it and found it slightly disorienting. Going into it a little deeper uncovered layers of meaning I would otherwise have missed.

One main character is Werner Pfennig, a young orphan in Germany who joins the Hitler Youth rather than end up working in a coal mine, as his father did before him. He and his sister, Jutta, listen to science programs broadcast from France on an old radio, and Werner develops an interest that will set him on a course he would never have foreseen.

The other main character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind girl, who is the grand-daughter of the voice Werner heard on the radio. She lives with her father in Paris until the Germans move in, then she and her father go to Saint Malo where her great uncle, Etienne, lives in the house from which the radio programs were broadcast.

The chapters alternate between Werner's story and Marie Laure's: his time at the orphanage, then at the Hitler Youth training facility, and finally his service in the German army; and her time in Paris, then the changing circumstances of her life in Saint Malo before and after it, too, is occupied, her father is arrested and she begins helping with resistance efforts.

There are other significant characters whose stories are told in their own short chapters among those of Werner and Marie-Laure. And there's a diamond. A very large, cursed diamond, that may or may not have powers of its own. I'll leave you to decide what to think about that. To me it was superfluous to the story, which could have been told just as well without the supernatural aspect. I thought it took away from the gravitas of the story and unfortunately, lessens its significance.

Books that offer insight into the human condition, or that reveal hidden or forgotten historical realities are often the best books and the ones that become important either to the reader specifically or to society in general. I think this one tried to be that, but fell somewhat short. In my opinion, and I do realize it's only my opinion - this book did win a Pulitzer - it's over-stuffed with attempted wisdom, motifs, symbols, figures of speech, and imagery. I felt like it was trying too hard to be profound on every page, when sometimes what I really wanted was more story or dialogue to help me know the characters better. I found some of its proverbs unfathomable:

"The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the globe.The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it. It is only movement and love;it is the living infinite." 

"Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air."

And some of it I simply found stale and overused:

"Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solutions."

"You know the greatest lesson in history? It's that history is whatever 
the victors say it is. That's the lesson."

"Sometimes the eye of the hurricane is the safest place to be"

"'Is it right,' Jutta says, 'to do something only because everyone else is doing it?'"

To be fair, there were also wonderful descriptions, figures of speech, etc, some chilling and others beautiful, many of which stopped me in my tracks to read again just to enjoy the way he put the words together:

  "One hundred children passing sleek and interchangeable in their white uniforms like livestock before the eyes of the examiners."

"The drain moans; the cluttered house crowds in close"

"Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor."

If I was asked what this book is about, I'd start with the war story, but it's also about vision and hearing, good and evil, light and dark, water and fire, the natural world, things hidden within other things, radio technology, fear and courage, free will and choices, propaganda, the pointlessness of war, how it devalues human life, and how even in the midst of the horror some will still offer kindness. It's also about how children were brainwashed in Nazi Germany, the French resistance, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Debussy's Clair De Lune, and the phrase "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever" which appears throughout the book. And it's about a spooky diamond. That diamond made me feel like I was reading two different genres that somehow got stuffed between the same covers.

It's a book that deserves more than a cursory reading. There are dots to connect all the way through, and interesting things to uncover - like the foreshadowing of one character's death and the exquisite irony of someone ending up in the very position he had compromised all his standards to avoid. There are puzzles in the story, and the story itself is a puzzle.   

Although there were aspects of the book I didn't enjoy, I don't want to leave the impression that I didn't like it at all. It showed me things I'd never seen, taught me things I didn't know, and will stay with me, I'm sure, for a long, long time. It's a moving, in some ways beautiful story and most definitely worth reading, I just think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't tried so hard to say so much about so many things.  

 One last thing. There is something about this book that I find disconcerting. I think this is the third book I've read where the reader is meant to sympathize with the Nazi character. Now before anybody gets defensive, I'll state for the record that of course I know the German people suffered. Bombs and bullets killed and maimed Germans just like they did other people and Nazis grieved their dead the same way as anybody else. I also realize not all German people were supportive of the Nazi regime. Having said that, I wonder if lines are being blurred, and I wonder why. The Nazi cause was evil and I think we absolutely must remember that so it never, ever, happens again. The bombing by the Allies that takes place in this novel and which we are meant to find horrifying, had some hard consequences yes, but it doesn't begin to compare to the horror of the Nazi bombing campaigns. The Allies were pushing back the darkness the Nazis were spreading. There may be good and bad on both sides, there always is, but the bottom line is the Nazi agenda was evil and it was right to stop it. That is a line that should never be blurred.


Anonymous said...

When I read this I didn't really like the diamond bit either, although it maybe being magical, and the nazis wanting it did come into play, so maybe it had more of an impact on the story than it initially seems to.

On the 'good' nazi thing, I don't think it diminishes how horrible the nazi regime was. Instead I think that it gives some humanity, it says that not all Germans were nazis, that even fighting on the side of the nazis means that the army agreed with the nazi agenda. It says that whilst the worst effected were those that the nazis viewed as 'wrong' everyday Germans suffered too, not in the same way but through the things they had to do to be safe, the decisions they had to make, and yes from what the allies did to fight the nazis, especially the demoralising bombing because it involved people who were just trying to live, not really playing a role in the war (and yes, I know the nazis did it too, but that doesn't make the allies doing it a good- or even acceptable-thing).

Ordinary Reader said...

Hi lucybirdbooks. I've been reading through your reviews and looking for books to add to my TBR. I've never read Jasper Fforde but I will give him a try based on your recommendation, and I was excited to see you felt much as I did about The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I thought it was truly beautiful and it remains one of my all-time favourites. We agree on that, but we'll have to agree to disagree on the allied bombing issue. I appreciate you taking the time to read my thoughts and comment. Thanks!

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