Book of the month- June 2018
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
An analytical writer’s review.
Title- All the Light We Cannot See
Author- Anthony Doerr
Genre- Historical Fiction
(Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Andrew Carnegie’s 2015 prize for excellence in fiction.)
Synopsis- (This synopsis is courtesy of www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/a/all-the-light-we-cannot-see/about-all-the-light-we-cannot-see)
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc evacuates Paris with her father after he is entrusted with a valuable diamond named the Sea of Flames. They escape to her great-uncle Etienne’s house in Saint-Malo, where her father is arrested. Marie-Laure becomes part of the French resistance effort. She and Etienne use his contraband radio to broadcast information to the Allies. Meanwhile, a brilliant German boy named Werner Pfennig seems doomed to spend his life in a coal mine—but instead receives an invitation to a Nazi school. Leaving behind his sister, Werner sacrifices everything he believes in to pursue his dream of becoming a scientist. Werner is pressed into military service and becomes part of a team assigned with the mission of locating and destroying anti-German radio broadcasts.
While Werner is in Saint-Malo hunting Marie-Laure’s radio broadcasts, Allied bombers attack the city. In separate locations, both Werner and Marie-Laure are trapped. Eventually Marie-Laure’s broadcasts save Werner’s life, and in return, he finds her and saves her from a German officer who is prepared to kill her in his search for the Sea of Flames diamond.
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What can we learn as a writer?
A Fresh Perspective- Marie Laure and the world of Texture, Sound and taste.
“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers."
“To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.”
One of the most extraordinary things about this novel for me was the merging of the five senses. Doerr has this insane ability to take a taste and paint you a picture with it, the most memorable of these examples being peaches (which taste like a new sunrise, I might add) that both Werner and Marie-Laure experience in much the same way.
As a writer, I found the use of sounds, tastes and textures by Marie-Laure to evoke the visual to be astounding. She finds appreciation and love for life through her four remaining senses, and as a reader I found it astounding how the writer was able to portray these remaining senses as making up for the one she had lost without hinderance or pause. This is something I would recommend any budding writers take note of as they are reading, because I’ve read many books and never seen the senses used as fully and expertly as they are in this particular narrative.
Communication and connectivity as a theme-
“Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.”
This novel has one of the benefits of modern day historical fiction, this being perspective in hindsight. It was in the time period in which this book is mainly set (1930-1945) that worldwide connectivity and communication really began to leap forward, and here we are presented with not only the rapid development, but also, it’s importance to the lives of everyday people, especially during the war. It is through the radio that Werner Pfennig finds a teacher in Marie-Laure’s grandfather as a child, it is his words, travelling across countries, across nations, which spark his curiosity for science and lead him down the path not only to his death, but to becoming the sole reason that Marie-Laure survives.
We are also presented with the double-sided edge on which this technology teeters, as the innocent way in which Werner originally learns and develops a passion for such technology is manipulated and directed by his schooling at The National Institute (A prestigious Nazi School) into a weapon which ultimately leads to multiple deaths at the hand of Volkheimer.
The radio represents many things within Doerr’s novel, not only as a weapon or a comfort, as a final cry out into the darkness of war for the desperate or the bereaved, but as a means of control and indoctrination over the people of both Germany and France. It is especially remarkable at the end of this novel, as we hear an elderly Marie-Laure, how the author recognises the implications which affect the reader today, and how some practices, such as subliminal messaging, are still used by advertising companies.
As a writer, it is important always to bring back these themes, these revelations, to impact the reader of now. It is in this regard, in my opinion, that historical fiction is in fact some of the most powerful in terms of resonance, by showing that human problems now, are much the same as they have ever been.
Humanisation of The Hitler Youth and Nazi Soldiers-
“He was a just a boy. They all were. Even the largest of them.”
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
“A girl got kicked out of the swimming hole today. Inge Hachmann. They said they wouldn’t let us swim with a half-breed. Unsanitary. A half-breed, Werner. Aren’t we half-breeds too? Aren’t we half our mother, half our father?”
One could argue that as a writer, particularly in this genre, it is duty to tell the stories of the minority. However, when it comes to World War 2, often those minorities are considered to be the Jews, or those who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis, but it is also important to consider the German individuals, particularly children, who were swept up in the Nazi agenda. Werner Pfennig, Volkheimer, and Frederick are but children when they are sent off to The National Institute, and when the choice between enlisting in Nazi forces and dying in the mines like his father present, Werner takes the option which most people would- the one which promises better conditions and a higher quality of life. We are given a view not onto into the fact that these children have been plucked at a young and impressionable age and immersed into a curriculum of ‘Racial Sciences’ and other indoctrination, but that they are fed a constant swarm of rumours about the strength of the Nazi forces. Little of what they are taught is true, and even as the Nazi forces begin to wane towards the close of the war, we find boys as young as twelve being put into the line of fire and offered up as if they are no more than sacrificial lambs. This alternate viewpoint allows us to empathise with those unknowing citizens who were caught up in the Nazi agenda, and sheds light on the helplessness and oppression forced onto the young German population at this time. As a writer, it is important that we examine such historical events from all sides, to try and understand the motivations behind why people seemingly did not try to resist such heinous intent, because in doing this we can, perhaps, re-write history to be more accurate, and oppose narratives which are written and presented solely by the winning side.
Story Structure and completeness-
Flashing back and stumbling forward, cyclical storytelling in action.
“It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiralled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vestige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.”
Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of televisions programs, of e-mails, 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 am 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, jewellery 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 landscape we call nations.
One of the great things about this story is how we are given a comprehensive look at events. We are not only taken back to the childhoods of both Werner and Marie-Laure, but we are also given a glimpse into the future and how the war impacts Marie-Laure in the long term. This awareness of both the events pre-empting and the after-effects of the war, gives us a cyclical plot that any writer should be envious of. Marie-Laure ends up back in the apartment she was raised in, working in the museum her father did. Werner ends up killed by a landmine of the very forces he served with such blind loyalty. The diamond is returned to the sea and Volkheimer becomes a kind of messenger, delivering Werner’s final regards to those who mattered most to him, his sister Jutta. The ending of this story is not sudden, nor can it be considered especially dramatic or eventful, but it is nonetheless crucial to giving us a full and complete picture, which after the way in which the storylines weave together from such opposing pasts, shows the true mastery of Doerr and his ability to craft a story.
Juxtaposing character perception- The ‘Blind’ leading the blind.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”
Thematically speaking, the author in this case does an amazing job of showing two sides to blindness to make a deep point about human nature. We have the physical blindness of Marie-Laure, and the choice of Werner to turn a blind eye to the atrocities being committed. It is as though, when he climbs from the wreckage of the Hotel of Bees in Saint Malo in the final chapters of the novel, that he is seeing for the first time, and that Marie-Laure herself opens his eyes with her unassuming innocence and remarkably astute nature, despite being unable to see the world around her. Authors reading this should make note of the way these two forms of blindness, the voluntary and the involuntary, are juxtaposed in order to make the point that it is not sight which determines our ability to accurately interpret the moral dilemmas of the world around us, but our willingness to struggle against the comfort of ignorance. Marie-Laure struggles, and yet she sees the world in a remarkably honest and unassuming way. Werner on the other hand chooses to remain ignorant, to keep himself safe from the guilt he would feel if he truly looked deep into the ethics and morals of the cause which he serves. Writers should take note of how both sides of this are utilised and peppered throughout the story to bring the reader to the desired conclusion.
Shedding light on the differently abled character-
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”
“And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind.”
As discussed previously in regard to humanisation of the Nazi Soldiers, it is perhaps the duty of the historical writer to shed light on what was taboo to be spoken of at the time. Doerr does this with both Marie-Laure, who is the epitome of what it means to adapt and conquer your physical shortcomings. This is perhaps also reflected in her links to snails and other creatures of the sea which have evolved to survive with their own limitations over thousands of years. It can certainly be said by the reader that the story itself feels almost like a weening out process of weaknesses for Marie-Laure, whereby her fear of the world around her, her reliance on her father, and her life of familiarity and comfort in Paris are all torn away, and is made to stand on her own, to survive and adapt in whatever way she can. It is also important to note the identification of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder within Etienne. During this time period, the condition was not recognised medically, nor accepted in the community at large. Men with this kind of mental trauma were closed away in high rooms, shame of the family, considered weak, and it is wonderful here to not only see Etienne’s pain identified as being caused by the horrors of war, but also to see him overcome his agoraphobia as his love for his niece overshadows all fear and doubt. As a writer, it is always important that we give voices, give names, to those conditions and people who would otherwise be overlooked, and this story is no exception in shedding limelight on the differently abled and identifying what we know now to be a serious mental illness as a result of exposure to war.
To conclude, there is much that can be learned from this novel for the budding writer. I recommend this, not only because it was selected as the Pulitzer prize-winning novel for fiction of 2015, which of course deserves attention in itself, but because of the way it is written. The descriptions and use of meter are any writer’s dream, and the attention to detail displayed Is nothing short of inhuman. To me, it astounds that a single human mind can comprehend something in so many facets, and from so many points of view. The way the story is constructed is also to be noted by the reader who is also a writer, because it gives believability to the constructed plot, which comes of not as pre-planned or positioned, but as purely coincidental in the way the strands of the narrative tie together. This in itself is no mean feat. For the student writer, I also implore you read this novel, and to observe the way in which theme and content is used to highlight not only historical points about the time period and war, but also to expose moral and ethical questions about not only the human condition, but the political one of the world we live in now which has been much determined by these events. It is the goal of the author, not only to entertain, but inform and challenge the reader, to cause them to question what they know to be right, or pre-formed opinions about what they thought they knew of a certain event, character, or topic.
A five-star read for sure, and one that any author would be proud to call their own. Take note writers, this is pure literary gold!