I recently finished All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, having been lent the book by my mother.
I really enjoyed ATLWCS. Interesting enough, I think I enjoyed the narrative structure of the book more than the actual content and ending.
ATLWCS is what I would call a “leapfrog” novel in terms of both the times we view the characters and the order in which we view them. On a microscopic level, the main story switches between a French girl (Marie-Laure) and a German boy (Werner) as they grow up in France and Germany at the start of Word War II. Doerr does a great job of regularly switching to one right after the other in what I would call “micro chapters” of anywhere from a single to four or five pages. He’s shrewd enough to break his “rule” when it suits the story or when it can get a reaction from the reader. Something big just happened to Werner? Do two Marie-Laure sections in a row! Or, do a Marie-Laure section followed by a German officer section. The guy definitely knows how to pull on the emotions of the audience and I liked that.
Looking at the novel from a macroscopic level, the book begins by leap-frogging between the beginning of French occupation and a particular day in August 1944. The gap between these two periods gradually closes as the novel progresses until the two time periods merge and become one. I enjoyed these aspects of the narrative immensely.
The two main characters are compelling. Marie-Laure happens to be blind. A key aspect of the story and her relationship with her father and uncle is how hard they work to help her overcome this challenge. I think, at the surface, ATLWCS does a good job of humanizing blindness and showcasing a myriad of ways that someone who lacks site can still be very functional. I don’t intend that to sound obtuse. I just know that there are people in this world who consider having a challenge to be a death sentence or source of misery and that doesn’t have to be true.
Werner is an engineering nerd and is fascinated by radio. The title of the novel is very clearly a metaphor for not only Marie-Laure’s blindness, but more importantly electromagnetic energy, the invisible light that is what ultimately ties Werner and Marie-Laure together. This love unfortunately draws him into the Reich. I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer when I was a teen and I’ve been fascinated by the political climate that lead up to citizens of Germany supporting a fascist regime.
I think Doerr does a good job of sowing a tremendous amount of doubt in Werner, but that doubt appears to be absent from the rest of the characters and situations in the novel at large. I guess one could say that Frederick symbolizes German national doubt. Jutta, Werner’s sister, also comments at the end that people weren’t (I’m paraphrasing) “thinking well back then” or something to that effect. I’m also disappointed that the Reich’s treatment of Jews is alluded to but never actually confronted or discussed in detail. Perhaps it’s just not that kind of story or that the author intends the reader to bring their historical knowledge to bear. It bothers me though, because it makes the literature “safer” than what it could be and it probably makes it appeal more to a mass market audience. Authors these days just don’t have guts anymore.
I was disappointed with the ending, yet appreciated the ending. That is clearly a paradox. I appreciated that not everyone lives happily ever after in this book because war allows few to live happily ever after. I was disappointed that the “payoff” for the main characters is just a fleeting moment. But, perhaps that is a lesson in of itself.
The book is pretty timely in that you’d have to be a real fool to not see the parallels between the United State’s current political climate and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union. Candidates for President are talking about building walls, labeling Muslims with patches, banning entry of refugees, etc. Are we really doomed to keep repeating this or are we actually going to stand up and say “No!” These are not the principles America was founded on.
I should mention that I took the opportunity to enhance my reading experience by simultaneously watching episodes of “World War 2 in HD Colour” on Netflix. The early episodes in particular give a visual picture of the lead up and early years of the war.
It’s a good read and a quick read and I would recommend it!