I’ve grown tired of the Second World War. Perhaps it’s a result of being raised by a WWII veteran and a mother who was infatuated with John Wayne. From The Longest Day and Stalag 17 to The Best Years of Our Lives and the Dirty Dozen, I’ve watched all of them at least a half a dozen times. Add the more recent movies of Spielberg and Eastwood and my mind short-circuits when I start to count the hours of my life given over to the atrocities of war. So, I’m a tough audience to surprise. But Anthony Doerr’s novel that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction did just that.
The title is brilliant. All the Light We Cannot See. The faith, hope and strength of character needed to believe such a statement is reflected in our protagonist Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Raised by her father—the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris—after her mother died in childbirth, Marie-Laure loses her sight at age six. From that moment her sensory awareness develops a higher level of sensitivity.
The real intersection [of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge] presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.
Marie-Laure’s insatiable curiosity breaks down the narrow focus of the reader in such a way that our senses tingle too. So when she describes someone for us, our response is, “Yes, of course.”
When the wind is blowing, which is almost always, with the walls groaning and shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through it’s center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.
Losing her sight becomes the foundation of Marie-Laure’s strength. Her father helps develop this inner resourcefulness by encouraging her to learn braille and by building intricate wooden boxes that she must manipulate in order to open and find the prize. Through these puzzles she learns there is nothing she can’t accomplish.
Strength and courage embody all of Doerr’s characters. Werner Pfennig, an orphan whose genius with radios leads him to the academy for the Hitler Youth and eventually to track the Resistance, has also learned to rely on his inner strength. But his survival skills don’t numb his heart to the inhumanity around him.
Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.
While Werner wrestles with his inability to act against his duty others, like the Old Ladies’ Resistance Club in Marie-Laure’s neighborhood, do all they can to muck up the progress of the Third Reich.
The women funnel a shipment of rayon to the wrong destination. They intentionally misprint a train timetable. Madame Hébrard, the postmistress, slides an important-looking letter from Berlin into her underpants, takes it home and starts her evening fire with it.
This risk-taking, Werner’s inner turmoil and Marie-Laure’s faith becomes the tapestry of hope that runs throughout the novel and plays counterpoint to the atmosphere of suspense that Doerr creates on each page.
From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.
Thanks to the heightened sensory world of a blind girl, All the Light We Cannot See allows us to shake off our apathy, awaken our empathy and ask ourselves, What choices would we make to survive while staying true to ourselves and humanity? Doerr’s novel is a tenderly written tale about one of the most devastating moments in history. A book to be savored and pondered.