by Anthony Doerr who is white, straight, and from Cleveland,OH
Stars: 5 *****
To put it lightly, this book was an awesome piece of art. On day one, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start this book because I had just finished In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. People love writing about war-time. I won’t get too far into it, but Larson’s book is about the american ambassador to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. All the Light We Cannot See takes place during the war. Two books in one month about WWII? Under any other circumstance, I might have regretted it. But this book is about more than that.
The Summary: Marie-Laure Leblanc, blind since the age of six, runs from Paris with her father, a lock-smith and extraordinary model-maker, to escape the German invasion. They end up in a walled city named Saint-Malo, living with Marie-Laure’s great uncle and his care-taker, Madame Manec. On the other side of the story, we have Werner Pfennig from a coal-mining town in Germany. A radio enthusiast from a young age, he and his sister Jutta fix up a radio in the midst of their orphanage. His technical and mathematical skills attract the attention of Hitler’s Youth, and he’s soon carried away from what was once an inevitable, looming future in the coals mines to the National Political Institute of Educaton #6 at Schulpforta and, of course, war. Also, a very very powerful diamond is involved.
But summaries are the husks of stories (I will tell you this often). Characters, prose, and concept make this story into what it is.
It’s beautifully written, the kind of beautiful that makes you stop, read it again, sit in it, read it again, and then hesitate to move on because maybe you should read it again. I’ll give you some quotes – always – but I’ll make this caveat: I prefer quotes within the context of the whole. This is especially true of this book, where I think any one passage is most beautiful when snuggled into its pages.
Let’s introduce ourselves to Saint-Malo, the city on the sea:
“Saint-Malo: Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand. We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Bretons next. French if there’s anything left.In stormy light, its granite glows blue. At the highest of tides, the sea creeps into basements at the very center of town. At the lowest of tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.”
This is typical of Doerr’s style. The description characterizes, it tells you something about story, characters, and place (As I find is often true in fiction, places are as much characters as humans are). And then the last sentence leaves you in the dust: “the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.” The image stands out in my mind: skeletons of ships – water, hungry, having eaten the meaty parts, lapping at their dilapidated sides.
This was one of my favorite quotes from the beginning:
“Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.She had no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green; a smell like oil and metal, the sound of a lock tumbler sliding home, the sound of his key rings chiming as he walks. He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works, the tip of cigarette gleaming a prismatic blue.”
Asyndeton and polysyndeton in one paragraph! (these were my favorite vocab words in 12th grade. I love the way the words themselves sound and I love them as rhetorical devices). This is the kind of passage that jives with my imagination, I can see the colors, and the feelings behind them. Anthony Doerr is not blind – most of his research, he says in a Goodreads.com interview, comes from memoirs. But what a beautiful way to introduce us to her world, to the light we cannot see; she doesn’t even see it, she experiences it. And from this passage we know how she loves and depends on her father, that his presence signals home, comfort. Then she makes fun of his cooking!
Then these little gems pop up from time to time:
“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
“What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models. Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of eagles. None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
“one wet kilogram within which spin universes”
I mean come on. That little nugget of poetry sends tingles down my spine.
The one thing that Werner and Marie-Laure have in common, and which links them, is their intense curiosity. From Marie-Laure’s endless fascination with snails, shells, books, and oceans to Werner’s interest in radios, algorithms, and engineering. I love this about them, that they live and breathe knowledge and adventure. Of course, you should get to know the whole cast of characters: Etienne (“seventy-six percent crazy”), Madame Manec (total lady badass), Volkheimer, Frederick, Jutta, the list goes on. But I don’t have the space for that – you’ll just have to read the book. But here’s a tidbit of characterization between Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Ettienne:
“[Marie-Laure] loves to imagine Darwin at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.“Bonsoir,” she says to Etienne [her great uncle], standing on the davenport in his study. “I may be only a girl of twelve, but I am a brave French explorer who has come to help you with your adventures.”Etienne adopts a British accent. “Good evening, mademoiselle, why don’t you come to the jungle with me and eat these butterflies, they are as big as dinner plates and may not be as poisonous, who knows?”“I would love to eat your butterflies, Monsieur Darwin, but first I will eat these cookies.”Other evenings they play Flying Couch. They climb onto the davenport and sit side by side, and Etienne says, “Where to tonight, mademoiselle?”
Charming, isn’t it?
The radio waves criss-crossing in the air, human relationships that span countries and continents and blindness, shared histories, and hope – goddamnit, hope that we can give ourselves a fighting chance to make our lives meaningful while we are still alive.
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