I rarely devote a post to a single novel, but I don’t want this one to get buried in the avalanche of books awaiting my attention. Let me try to explain why I believe Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a masterpiece.
Anthony Doerr has won numerous literary prize. He spent a decade on this novel, and he takes his time (448 pages) so that we get to know these characters.
In more or less alternating chapters, we are introduced to Marie Laure, a young blind girl who lives in Paris before the Second World War, and Werner, a technically adept young boy who loves to fool around with simple radios in the orphanage in Berlin that houses him and his sister.
And then, it's 1939, and we read:
All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl through the gardens. She and her father cook a pear tart and burn it by accident, and her father opens all the windows to let out the smoke, and she hears violin music rise from the street below. And yet by early autumn, once or twice a week, at certain moments of the day, sitting out in the Jardin des Plantes beneath the massive hedges or reading [Braille] beside her father’s workbench, Marie-Laure looks up from her book and believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her.
War comes, France falls, a fabulous (in both senses of the word) diamond disappears from the Paris museum in which Marie Laure’s father works, and tension rises as this treasure is sought after with implacable persistence by a German officer.
All this is plot, but what makes this novel remain in one’s mind is the realistically portrayed personalities and how they manage the quandaries they repeatedly face. The blind girl learns to get around Paris and then the town they escape to, by means of detailed models her father builds for her. We are right alongside her as she uses every possible sense other than sight to gauge her steps and her safety. As readers being immersed in that challenging dangerous sightless world, we feel it keenly.
Werner loves only science and doesn’t have any interest in politics. But when he is recruited by the Nazis for his skills, he goes along with enough brutality during his training and service that our sympathy for him is not at all a sure thing.
Marie's father promises never to leave her. A traumatized uncle hasn’t left his house in many years, but then his own hidden old radio might save the day. Or cause everyone depending on him to be caught. When Marie Laure and Werner actually meet at last, you can hear a pin drop, metaphorically speaking.
This reader wanted so badly for everything to turn out all right, but in wartime, is that ever possible? Every thread that can be followed is done so satisfyingly, if sometimes heartbreakingly. Subtlety, nuance, heightened sensory scene-setting, a bit of history, and some coincidences that are worked out with infinite believability make this a novel I can recommend most highly.
If you’re a novelist, your characters don’t have to be blind or reluctant Nazis to engage your readers’ emotions, senses, and philosophical leanings. Doerr, though, uses just those plot strategies in All the Light We Cannot See to create a world you’ll feel you’ve lived through yourself, painfully and memorably.