After a long time, I finished a book and felt a great emptiness unravel inside me.
Something about “All the Light We Cannot See” By Anthony Doerr moved me and millions of others, earning it the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. From the story and characters to the writing style, this book has set the bar high for all the other books I’ll read this year.
I will try my best not to spoil anything in the review.
The book follows two characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, during their journey through WW2-stricken France and Germany.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a young, freckled girl who grows up with her father, a locksmith in France. She loves reading, and she loves solving puzzles. She is obsessed with molluscs, learning as much as possible from the museum collection.
And she is blind.
Werner Pfennig is a white-haired orphan who grows up with his sister Jutta in an orphanage in a German mining town. He is an incredibly bright child and, at an early age, shows a penchant for radios. He intuitively understands them, repairing what even the best technicians deem impossible. Owing to this prodigious talent, he is sent to train for a special military regiment of the Third Reich.
And orbiting the story is a valuable diamond, drawing all the characters together. This almost magical object is the source of much sorrow, courage, disappointment, and wisdom. It’s funny how an inanimate object can invoke so much emotion.
Sometimes I catch myself staring at [the sea] and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.
On a surface level, the title refers to radio waves, which are basically light waves of frequencies we can’t see, that are all around us. In all likelihood, there are some encircling you right now. Our world of telecommunications is governed by this invisible light we cannot see.
But I also see the symbolism relating to Marie-Laure and how she can’t see the world. (Justifiably) developing a blind protagonist couldn’t have been easy. We take our visual lives for granted—her world consists of surfaces, sounds and smells. They are her sole markers for navigating through life. This story, written in incredibly metaphorical and textural prose, gives us unique insight—for the lack of a better word—into the life of the blind.
Open Your Eyes and See What You Can With Them Before They Close Forever
The possible meaning of light and dark also symbolises good and evil. Despite the war and all the bigotry surrounding it, good, decent, simple people just want to get by. This must be the light in the world that most cannot see in this climate of xenophobia and hate. (One of my Literature professors mentioned in class that the discourse of light and dark symbolising good and evil is a colonial construct fraught with racial notions; my reading looks beyond that.)
Although I would’ve expected the two parallel accounts of the protagonists to meet in any other book, I was unsure how the author could manage that in this novel. But as you move forward, they drift ever closer until they become so entwined that you kick yourself for not seeing it coming. The storylines merge and cross over in the most beautiful ways, tying up many loose ends and deliberately leaving some unresolved for you to wonder about. Through the character’s decisions, you get a glimpse at their personalities, their fundamental goodness, and how people, no matter wherever they’re from, are just people.
Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.
Interestingly, this book doesn’t comprise large chapters of dense prose. Instead, each chapter is scarcely 2-3 pages long, with each paragraph averaging five lines. But these lines are some of the best-written prose I have read in a long time. I love the imagery Doerr uses to describe scenes and emotions. The quotes I’ve included throughout this review are a pale representation of Doerr’s literary brilliance.
“Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame?”
The majority of the story spans 4-5 years, and through them, we can see the characters grow. We see them grow up all too soon, as most children of the WWs had to. But we also witness how the war breaks them. [Spoiler] Werner unintentionally gets an innocent woman, and her daughter killed and is continually haunted by the little girl’s ghost (a manifestation of his guilt).
Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor
In a way, the story’s true hero is the radio. Think about it. Isn’t it magical that you can speak into a metal object and have your voice be transported several miles away? How cool is it to pick up a radio and hear a stranger’s voice ring in your head?
There are, of course, certain areas where I felt the book could have been written differently.
For one, I didn’t like how the book sometimes jumped back and forth between years. There is a certain suspense and cadence that is built in a chronologically written book, which was lost here. It gets disorienting at times. Some minor plot points didn’t really need to be there, while others were needlessly stretched out. The novel was anyway long; couldn’t these have just been cut out or edited down?
A great change has occurred in the countenance of Neumann Two, as though he looks not at his former companions but into his last hours on earth.
Having adequate character development while avoiding unnecessary scenes is a delicate balance authors grapple with. While succeeding on most counts, there were some scenes that I felt the book could have done without. Editing them would have made the novel succinct.
Some people say they didn’t like the short chapters and crisp yet lucid writing, but that is a stylistic preference. I LOVED it.
Personal Unrest [Spoilers]
This book made me think about how authors decide to kill their characters. When is the best time? Is it required or not? How best to do it – an unexpected bomb or a long, agonising end?
Werner, after all the trials he braves, all the emotions he confronts, all that he manages to achieve, is killed walking into a landmine set by his own people. You get a cruel sense of foreboding as Werner’s head swims in his memories. His life flashes before his feverish eyes as he breathes his last before triggering the landmine.
Every day, on his right and left, another soul escapes toward the sky…There is something to be angry at, Werner is sure, but he cannot say what it is…In a dream, he sees a bright crystalline night with the canals all frozen and the lanterns of the miners’ houses burning and the farmers skating between the fields…And Marie-Laure? Can she still feel the pressure of his hand against the webbing between her fingers as he can feel hers?… Even Werner’s thirst has faded. He feels only the raw, impassive surge of the moonlight as it strikes the tent above him and scatters…Werner’s body seems to have gone weightless under his blanket, and beyond the flapping tent doors, the trees dance and the clouds keep up their huge billowing march…The moonlight shines and billows; the broken clouds scud above the trees. Leaves fly everywhere. But the moonlight stays unmoved by the wind, passing through clouds, through air, in what seems to Werner like impossibly slow, imperturbable rays. They hang across the buckling grass.
Why doesn’t the wind move the light?…
Death is an integral part of the human condition. We have been. Moreover, it would be hard to write a wartime novel and not have death play a role. It arguably has to be an important theme in a story.
Throughout the book, readers develop a close sympathy and love for the character Werner. We can see how good-natured he is, how he wishes to do good, how he longs to take charge of his life, and how broken he is by the horrors of war. For him to die so abruptly certainly raises certain questions.
A gentleness flows into her eyes and hangs there an eternity.
I understand Doerr’s message with this death scene – that it can be sudden, tragic and too quick to realise. Readers must accept that their beloved characters can die and cannot miraculously survive while everyone else is popping off. That fundamentally good people die tragic deaths, leaving voids in their family and friends that never get filled. Death can be devastating, and I came face to face with that terrible reality when Werner dies.
I’ve never felt more inspired to write my own piece of fiction. You can be sure it will borrow ideas and themes from All the Light We Cannot See.
Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.
My name is Ishan Shanavas, and I am an Artist, Photographer, Writer and Student of the Natural World.
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