Because I am reading this book for a fun Facebook club, and just due to it being an interesting story, I thought I would write a short review about the popular book All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It’s yet another among the pantheon of World War Two era thrillers, a collection of which I’ve read many. I guess this period has always interested me, given that in many respects it was one of the most frightening in human history.
In this particular novel, Doerr chooses to tell the story of the unfolding conflict from two main perspectives: that of an intelligent German who goes on to become a radio operator and locate people who are making “illegal” transmissions, and a blind French girl who lives with her father and eventually her great uncle.
The German, Werner Pfenig, spends his early life in an orphanage with his sister and other kids, barely able to get enough food and about as por as can be. He discovers his love for radios somewhat by accident, rigging an old set that he then uses to entertain all within the house at the permission of Frau Elena, the head of the house. This ability to fix and tinker with some of the most complex systems as well as to master trigonometry, science, and similar fields, soon leads Werner out of the orphanage and to a rigorous training academy that prepares young men to fight for the reich. That these sorts of academies existed is amazing.
Meanwhile, the blind girl who’s name is Marie-Laure, discovers that she has an uncanny ability to solve puzzles. Her father, who works at the National Museum in Paris at the story’s start, enjoys creating these puzzles for her and concealing prizes within that she usually obtains with eye-popping speed. He soon teaches her tricks to figure out navigating her environment, such as counting steps and other landmarks. Finally, he constructs a model of the city that she can traverse with her fingers to learn where everything is in relation to everything else.
Shortly after the novel’s opening, the French family are forced to flee Paris to a seaside fortress city called Saint-Malo, where the great uncle lives in a six-floor house and has remained inside for many years due to mental challenges, probably definable these days as PTSD, suffered during the first World War. Marie-Laure is thus called upon to re-acclimate to these new surroundings, which she also does with the help of another model constructed by her father. Once she gets good at moving around, she begins to shuttle messages from the bakery to their house for broadcasting on the radio hidden in the attic that has not been confiscated by the invading Germans.
Werner spends a few years honing his skills within the academy, and when he is supposedly only 16 years of age they decide to bump his age up two years so that he can go ahead and begin serving his country. He has many misgiving about this service as he gets farther into it, leading to increased depression about life in general.
The story is told in a unique way, I would say in parallel rather than serial fassion. We jump back and forth between the early days and those leading up to, and those on and following August 9, 1944, the middle period which Werner calls the “Border days”. This creates in the reader a sense of detachment from the latter experiences as they are initially revealed, but slowly dawning understanding of their significance and origins as the previous period concludes. I am not sure how to feel about this arrangement, other than that perhaps it causes me to miss some of the stuff that occurs later and dilutes the response I would have to it. I suppose this is the intent.
Alongside the larger plot of the war itself is a smaller plot where a soon-to-be cancer-ridden German Sergeant Major vigorously hunts down the fabled Sea of Flames, a highly valued diamond that is said to confer ever-lasting life on its holder but also to cause serious problems for those who are close to the holder.
On the French side, I would say that Marie-Laure is generally shown as a competent, well-functioning blind person. As usual though when sighted people write about such things, way too much emphasis is placed on the idea of counting steps to get around. I do this only in very rare cases, and would say that it would mostly be an impractical way of measuring distance anyway. Can you imagine at every turn resetting your “meter” to zero, sometimes having to them go up to 100 or more in order to find the next turn? I might take steps of different sizes, or someone may call me causing me to become distracted. No, most of us do not do this regularly. We just learn to notice changes in the environment; sidewalk, grass, etcl and remember where to make the turns. It’s easier than it sounds. But I do at least like that Marie-Laure is shown being capable of independent functioning.
As usual with my reviews, I haven’t actually finished the story. I’m about 79% of the way through currently, but for the most part I like it. It took me a while to adapt to his writing style, which often omits commas where they should probably be. This creates a feeling of rush or panic, which I gather may also have been intended. I think though that this may have been the most nounorthodox examination of said war that I’ve ever read.