So I managed to squeeze in yet another book before the year went out! The way Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is written allows for you to finish it in a week’s time, provided you set aside a good number of free hours, as I did in the thick of my Christmas break. The novel’s chapters are refreshingly bite-sized, typically spanning two pages and stretching at the most to five. I say ‘refreshing’ not only because most of the novels I’ve read this year are built up by lengthy scenes that make it difficult to pause, but also because the chapters manage to be engaging in their brevity. Hence, this week I gave up a lot of time to finish this 500-plus page whopper of a book.
The novel follows on one hand, Marie-Laure, a French girl who early on in her life loses her vision and is taught by her father, a locksmith who works at the French Museum of Natural History, to navigate the cities they live in using scale models which her father builds. On the other hand, we also follow Werner, a German boy who is fascinated by the inner workings of the radio and is given the opportunity to use his skills in service of the Nazi army. Both of them are enamored by the things that they cannot see: Marie-Laure learns from the brief time she spends growing up in the halls of the Museum that “to really touch something… is to love it” (30) while Werner and his sister Jutta grow up hooked on a science and music program aimed at children that Werner manages to pick up while modifying his first salvaged radio. They have no idea that their paths will cross, as all novels are wont to do with their respective characters, in the walled city of Saint-Malo, which, like Dresden, is doomed to be decimated in the process of its liberation. Though the city has been mostly restored in the present day, it’s largely implied that the Saint-Malo that the reader becomes deeply acquainted with is not the Saint-Malo that still stands along the coast of France. Saint-Malo, following its destruction, becomes one other thing that we can no longer see, but still fall in love with, years and miles away.
The novel reminded me very much of Markus Zusak’s classic The Book Thief in the way it developed Marie-Laure and Werner. Both children are certainly precocious. Marie-Laure possesses a degree of cunning that evenly matches Liesel Meminger’s own. Werner’s anxieties toward the cause he is forced to serve easily brought back Zusak’s Rudy in my memory. The two enjoy brief moments of intimacy that are cut short by the hand of fate, and especially in Zusak’s book, Death plays a role that transcends his narration of the story. However, where Doerr’s novel departs from Zusak’s is also where the real magic takes place; whereas most of Zusak’s novel shows Liesel and Rudy growing up together and having their effect on each other from years of friendship, Doerr builds up the anticipation of Marie-Laure’s meeting with Werner during the siege of Saint-Malo, which, once more details to their backstories are revealed, appears to the reader more and more serendipitous and yet poignant as one gets past it. It becomes easy to appreciate the novel when one realizes that its true action is set in motion at the very beginning, which is the first night of Saint-Malo’s bombing, rather than at the chronological beginning when Marie-Laure’s childhood memories are recalled and Werner considers the harsh environment of the mining town in which he and his sister live. The latter is the beginning of a long set-up that takes up most of the book, but never loses its effectiveness, as the novel jumps back and forth between the events leading up to the bombing and the siege itself. The novel does this because while the chapters that chronicle the siege are, I feel, more essential to what it is all about (the encounter between the two lead characters), the circumstances reinforce the emotional gravitas of this moment and reverberate when the novel moves past the siege into the moments after. The chapters that follow the siege tend to reveal certain details prematurely, such that the set-up becomes a process of back-tracking, of filling in the blanks to the story. Nonetheless, when those details are revisited in the set-up chapters, they recall in one’s mind what is to happen when Saint-Malo is liberated.
At the same time, the novel is a meditation on human choices and how one overcomes circumstances that at first glance seem more powerful than the one who experiences them. Marie-Laure’s father comes into the possession of a fabled gem, which supposedly brings bad luck to those around it but long life to those who possess it. Its presence in the story is subtle, vaguely hinted at but never explicitly suggested as being the root of all the evils that the story has to throw at the main characters. When Marie-Laure realizes that the gem has started taking effect in her life, she comes to fear that she will never be able to overcome it or undo the damage it has caused to her loved ones. At the same time, Werner experiences an existential crisis when he becomes aware of his own capacity to rebel against a national cause and popular behavior. While he survives the bitter experience of training to become a Nazi soldier through the privileges that his skill set grants him, he realizes that those closest to him have suffered at great costs. He must then make the choice to protect them or die. The stakes behind this choice, one shall find, are the exact same stakes that permeate the encounter at the heart of the novel. And though Marie-Laure may not realize it because the time she spends with Werner is so brief, there was a great struggle that occurred in one man’s heart, which she couldn’t see, but perhaps could have known, if only they had spent more time together.
From there, we come back to what the novel is all about: things that we cannot see, but are there. The novel exposes to us the mechanisms of life the way one might present the mechanisms behind a magic trick. One performs the trick and astounds the audience. But whereas the revelation of a magic trick’s inner workings disillusion the audience, the revelation of life’s inner workings moves the audience to wonder, to delight in what is always there for all of us.
That’s it for 2014! I’ll be doing my next post on ZeroThreeTwo, which is my list of my five favorite reads of the past year. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your holidays. Happy new year!