All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was an absolute pleasure to read. I started the book on a trip to Victoria for the Clunes Booktown Festival. The book was next up on our book club list and I’d been excited to get into it after hearing a rave review from a reliable source. I loved the book from the second I started reading. I think one of my favourite literature devices is the dual narrative; a technique which was utilized in such an engaging way in this novel. All the Light We Cannot See follows two incredibly unique stories. The first is of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young French girl who lives with her father in their apartment in Paris. Soon after Marie-Laure’s 6th birthday, she loses her eyesight. Marie-Laure’s beautiful father uses his woodworking talent to recreate their area in miniature form, allowing Marie-Laure to roam the streets with her fingers, learning to navigate without her eyesight. The books second protagonist is Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives in a children’s home in Zollverein, Germany, with his younger sister Jutta. After they discover a broken short-wave radio, Werner realises his natural skill for circuitry. Together, he and Jutta listen to a variety of programs, including a regular broadcast from France hosted by an older gentleman who shares stories about the world of science;
“What do we call visible light? We call it colour. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
This book was written in a beautiful delicate style. I have no other way to describe it but light and gentle, despite the fact that the paths of these characters lives are anything but. It illuminated the beauty in tragedy, the love that keeps a person going through sadness and disappointment. Marie-Laure’s perseverance, first during the onset of her blindness and then again during the complete uprooting of her life is so… inspirational. There’s no way to say it without sounding cheesy, but the resilience, strength and integrity of this small Parisian girl was so moving. I found myself with a deep love for her, just like the inhabitants of the sea-side town of Saint-Malo where Marie-Laure and her father flee to find family after the onset of war.
The characters of All the Light We Cannot See struggle with such intense and real problems. Both Werner and Marie-Laure start the book as children who are burdened with far more than they should be. After Werner is accepted into the hellish training school for the Nazi military elite he constantly struggles between doing what is right and what is expected. This divide between good and bad becomes murky and Werner’s struggle to remain true to himself, and to his sister, becomes a constant battle. To feel Werner pulled between the expectations of the people around him and his own moral compass is a frightening sensation. At times, you feel as if he may lose himself and fall into the mindless mentality of the regime being forced upon him. It’s this struggle which so represents the essence of human existence, the constant pull between want and expectation and the way we form ourselves through that struggle.
The message I took away from this book is that often, life can be disappointing. Good people do not always get what they deserve and sometimes things are just endlessly bitter. I know that this probably doesn’t sound like a positive message to take from a book I enjoyed so much, but honestly, I found it tragically refreshing. Werner and Marie-Laure’s eventual meeting is swift and bitter-sweet; something which is built up the entire book seems disappointingly short.
I think I was fooled by the beautiful writing of Doerr. The book had such a gentle flow, such beautiful movement, like the ocean that so entrances Marie-Laure and Werner. I fell into the trap of believing that something so beautifully written could never be tragic, that the beauty of the writing couldn’t reveal the truth about the world; sometimes people don’t get what they deserve and the universe has no quota for sadness.
“I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colours. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the colour of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads.
It is my favourite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”