‘All the Light We Cannot See’: People in the Dark, Hunting the Right Frequency
In Anthony Doerr's richly romantic jewel quest of a war novel, a blind girl and an engineering prodigy pulse ever closer to each other across a ravaged Europe.
All the Light We Cannot SeePublisher: Scribner
Length: 544 pages
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publication date: 2014-05
Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death.
In Saint-Malo, which has so far avoided most of the devastation of the war, destruction is coming. A blind teenage girl plays with a scale model of the city, her guardian disappeared into the great unknown outside her home. In the basement of a grand old home built for the corsairs who once looted this coast, now a hotel known as the Hotel of Bees, a white-haired 18-year-old Wehrmacht private, waits for the attack. The Allied bombers roar closer. In Doerr's flashing and nearly too-ripe prose, their ordnance is “A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries. There are a thousand metaphors and all of them are inadequate” for what is to follow:
An avalanche descends onto the city. A hurricane. Teacups drift off shelves. Paintings slip off nails. In another quarter second, the sirens are inaudible. Everything is inaudible. The roar becomes loud enough to separate membranes in the middle ear.
The anti-air guns let fly their final shells. Twelve bombers fold back unharmed into the blue night.
Very little can catch the eye and quicken the breath like destruction of this sort. It’s sad but true. Even before he truly turns the key on the engine of his story, about how that blind girl and white-haired boy circle towards each other, Doerr has already captivated with his webs of description, that light and fiery touch whose poetic rhythms don’t lose sight of a scientific exactitude. Species called out and labeled. Phenomena examined.
Doerr dials back the sound and fury somewhat after that feverish start, but not by much. Leaping back to 1934, he enters the world of two children whose scientific perception blinds them in a way to the messy rot of human civilization, at least at first. Marie-Laure is raised alone in Paris by her cautious father. The lockmaster at the Museum of Natural History, he creates a scale model of their neighborhood that she can study to get about if he’s not there.
Marie-Laure's is an outwardly limiting life, physically transcribed by their apartment or anywhere her father can bring her. But her inner life is a rich tumult, always turning over her father’s puzzles or the pages of the Braille Jules Verne novels she reads like scripture. She imagines a miniature version of her life in which she sees herself: “Skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid.”
In the next country to the east, which will be waging war on Marie-Laure's in a few years’ time, a young boy named Werner and his sister Jutta grow up in a coal-country orphanage in Essen after the mines took their parents. The times are lean, with fever stalking the orphanage “like a wolf”, Sometimes all there is to eat are “cakes made from mustard powder and water.” Like Marie-Laure, though, Werner carries a quiet and pulsing strength that marks him as a child apart. Doerr winds the wires of this life in with Marie-Laure's; their yearnings for science and knowledge and beauty broadcast like missed transmissions.
This makes for a strangely steely construction, even though the characters spend nearly all of the novel just tapping closer to each other at the fire of Saint-Malo's devastation. Curiously, Doerr throws in an extra and wholly unnecessary element to tie things together: the oleaginous Nazi von Rumpel, hunting down cultural treasures for Hitler’s never-built museum of Western culture. The center of his quest is a gleaming jewel known as the Sea of Flames, which Marie-Laure's father helps spirit away from the museum as the German armies approach.
Throughout the book, von Rumpel pops up to pursue the Sea of Flames, like some ogre from a different story. He is at best a distraction, a plot device without purpose, who distracts from the two characters who vibrate intensely enough with curiosity and fascination to easily sustain the novel on their own.
Werner is a tiny prodigy who understands radio waves and number and technology as instinctively as Marie-Laure's fingers understand the locks her father works on and the mollusks whose shells fascinate her. He builds a radio from salvaged junk; the orphans gather around its beautiful noise as though it gave heat. They listen to music, news, the drumbeat of ugly propaganda, a science program broadcast out of the ether whose lyrical profundities open them up to unknown beauties. But because of his skill, Werner is marked for use in the Nazi war machine just grinding into full flaring life.
Pulled from embrace of his sister and the poor but familial orphanage and the French-born nun there who raised him (and is ever more terrified to be seen as French), he is thrown into a Darwinian training program for Aryan youth. There, the white-haired genius catches the eye of a petty and vengeful officer who sees a tool for promotion. Werner tries to rise above the Lord of the Flies barracks savagery as much as he can, forming a doomed friendship with the frail and sensitive bird-loving Frederick. But the war’s march is as inexorable as the inhumanity of the genocidal machine he’s trapped in. Before long, his radio skills send him to a commando unit on the Eastern Front that hunts down and assassinates partisans.
Of the two, Werner's story is the more obviously eventful, tossing him from one brutality to the next. But Marie-Laure’s more circumscribed passages are somehow even more impactful. When war breaks out, it comes to her cloistered life like a whisper borne on the wind. Her father takes them on the road to Saint-Malo, to hole up with relatives. The velocity of Doerr's writing is nearly at its most propulsive in these passages, the country flooding the countryside with fear and random movement and the grating wartime hunger that the book describes in terms all the more vivid from Marie-Laure's tactile point of view. A highly desired can of peaches tastes to her like “wedges of sunlight”. It’s one of the few joys left to her, like the Verne she reads over and over again, while “somewhere in the city, Germans are loading weapons or drinking brandy and history has become some nightmare from which Marie-Laure desperately wishes she could wake.”
Doerr brings a lot to bear on the reader in this novel. He lights up the brain with the exactitude of his research and sears the heart with all that churning wonder Werner and Marie-Laure are barely able to contain. All the Light We Cannot See is nearly too much of a novel even before Doerr seeds in the overkill addition of von Rumpel's Nazi treasure hunt. But those pages slip past barely noticed. For the most part, the novel confidently folds back one delicately traced episode upon the next, leading up to the bombers’ final approach to Saint-Malo, and the young prodigies there whose fate history will blindly decide.
There is resonant romance here, but at times it more resembles a nightmare.