All The Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
The market in literature never ceases to amaze me. One moment, we can be in the dark, hidden corners of the human imagination, inhabited by nightmare monsters, the next in a sunlit park, on a wave-lapped beach, or wherever delight and fancy take us. Then, we might be exploring the most intense emotions and deepest longings of which our species is capable.
‘The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light.’
All the Light We Cannot See is the most remarkable novel I have read in a long while, not so much because I enjoyed it, but rather because it made me sit up and pay attention. It is an unusual novel too – no doubt it would have to be to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – and I’ll get to that eventually.
As in Storm Island, which I wrote about two days ago, the background to Anthony Doerr’s book is war, specifically World War II. Briefly, All the Light We Cannot See concerns two teenagers, radio messages and a priceless diamond.
It begins in August 1944, in the French town of St Malo, occupied by German and Austrian forces and under attack from American bombers. In the cellar of a once-splendid hotel, Werner Pfennig, an 18-year-old German boy, crouches with two comrades and a two-way transceiver radio. On the top floor of a nearby mansion, a 16-year-old French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, kneels beside a model of the town, running her fingers over the miniature buildings. Both waiting. Remembering?
‘For or five or six or a million heartbeats roll by. She has her cane, Etienne’s coat, the two cans, the knife, the brick. Model house in her dress pocket …’
Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. She lives in Paris with her father, custodian of keys at a city museum. Secreted deep inside the vaults is the 24-carat stone of legend, the Sea of Flames, which renders its possessor immortal yet at the same time puts those he holds dear under a curse of misfortune. To help her find her way around the city, Daniel LeBlanc has built for his daughter a model of Paris. When the German forces invade, the pair flee north and take refuge with Etienne, an eccentric uncle who lives as a recluse in St Malo. M. Leblanc takes with him a package containing a stone, which may or may not be the fabulous Sea of Flames.
Werner has been brought up in a children’s home near Essen. His probable future lies in the coal mines of the Ruhrgebiet, which have claimed the life of his father. But Werner has a special talent that brings him to the attention of the authorities. As a small boy, he constructed a short wave radio which enabled him and his sister Jutta to listen to foreign broadcasts, including one by a science professor in France, to whom he writes letters. He is sent to a school for Hitler youth and, when war comes, is deployed in a unit with the task of locating and destroying illegal transmitters.
‘Werner tries to pick out individuals as the cars blur past: a sunken cheek, a shoulder, a glittering eye …. some of the prisoners, [he] sees, are sleeping. Werner blinks. Those are not sacks. That is not sleep. Each car has a wall of corpses stacked at the front.’
Two separate narratives follow the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner as they are thrown into a conflict that is not of their making. Fate has made them enemies, yet they are drawn together by the same fate, by the need to survive, and by the antenna hidden in a chimney of that mansion in St Malo.
A third strand follows the terminally-ill Sergeant Major von Rumpel, employed by the Reich to seek out and appropriate valuable works of art and jewellery. Having learned that the Sea of Flames is more than legend, he sets out to find it. Hoping?
I don’t want to give the story away, so I shall stop there and say something about the structure, style and characterisation of the novel.
The plot of All The Light We Cannot See is intricate and clever, the various strands connected without explanation at the beginning, separating through some 400 pages of narrative and coalescing finally in a nail-biting conclusion. It is written in present tense, giving the prose an enticing intimacy. It is sharp, concise, elegant. The all-seeing, all-knowing narrator is detached, yet somehow Anthony Doerr puts him – or her – in the story and as close to his creations as if they spoke for themselves.
We see Marie-Laure from both sides of her blindness, pretty, freckled, curious about the natural world, experiencing it through touch and hearing alone. We get to know Werner too, and his innermost thoughts and fears. Albino blond and with sticking out ears, he stumbles through war and some of the worst horrors of the Nazi programme, yet does so without losing his humanity.
All the chapters of All The Light We Cannot See are short – some exceedingly short – and switch back and forth between the main protagonists. I found this structure somewhat annoying and would have preferred longer passages in the company of each. Some of the radio jargon went over my head; Doerr certainly knows his subject. However, the format does force one to turn the pages. I am not competent to judge whether the novel deserved it Pulitzer Prize – (how are literary prizewinners chosen anyway?) but it is certainly a highly original novel with dynamic impact.
Until we begin reading, the title is something of a mystery, but that mystery unfolds as we read on. The daylight that Marie-Laure cannot see is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. And none of us can see the rest. We can only imagine.