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Review: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 2014. 531 pp. $27.

I started reading this World War II novel with some skepticism, and I confess, the first several chapters made me wonder whether I’d like it, despite all the raves. What’s the deal with snippet-length chapters? Some feel like television–short scene, nifty tag line, go to break. Also, I’m prejudiced against stories that mix fables, especially the kind of scenes that filmmakers shoot with Vaseline on the lenses, with cruel reality. And though the first stretch of All the Light We Cannot See took bold steps, many landed mighty close to the puddles of treacle that kept gathering, the just-this-side-of-sentimentality that reminded me of Thornton Wilder on a good day.

Saint-Malo, Brittany. (Courtesy Antoine Declerck, via Wikimedia Commons).

Saint-Malo, Brittany. (Courtesy Antoine Declerck, via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, few novelists have ever reached me with a story in which characters from very different walks of life happen to cross paths. Mark Helprin, for one, handles this skillfully, as he did with In Sunlight and in Shadow, because he takes randomness seriously as a theme. But when I picked up All the Light We Cannot See (again, light in the title), I’d just finished Adam Foulds’s In the Wolf’s Mouth (reviewed March 12), whose randomness felt merely trotted out, not explored.

But what do you know? I wound up devouring All the Light We Cannot See, and though I have reservations, I’m now probably the zillionth reviewer to recommend it. The story concerns Werner, a young, unschooled German orphan who’s taught himself electronics and a good hunk of mechanical engineering, and who’s such a prodigy that an institute for pure-bred Nazis takes him as a cadet. Meanwhile, Marie-Laure, a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at the Paris museum of natural history–and who somehow isn’t in school–learns science from the museum staff and by reading Jules Verne in Braille.

This is the fable part, in which the world largely smiles on Marie-Laure and glares at Werner, as they run up against life’s choices. But as Marie-Laure learns from the protagonist of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “logic, reason, pure science: these . . . are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.”

Accordingly, All the Light We Cannot See starts taking a harder line, with powerful results. Werner has only one friend at his Nazi institute, a dreamy bird-watcher, whom the others abuse as a scapegoat, and whom Werner does nothing to protect. The friend’s sufferings foreshadow the pact Werner has made with a devil who’ll demand that he use what he’s learned to kill people he’s never met. Werner tries to pretend that he’s there to celebrate pure science, but underneath, he knows better, a conflict that sharpens once the war sweeps him up. Meanwhile, the Germans invade France, and Marie-Laure’s father spirits her to his uncle’s house in St.-Malo, on the Breton coast. As the occupation tightens, and daily life becomes more threatening and dangerous, she too puts herself on the line.

I like how Doerr portrayed his two main characters; Marie-Laure’s father and great-uncle; and Werner’s institute friend. But most of the large cast feel like shadow figures, even though they command my attention by what they do. As with TV again, they fall into two categories, good and bad, and there’s never any doubt to which group they belong. However, Doerr can tell a story, eye-blink chapters or not, and the intricacies that lead to the ordained meeting between Werner and Marie-Laure compel you to turn the pages. I also like the theme of searching for light, in the mind or in reality, and what that metaphor means–warmth, delight, knowledge, freedom, humanity, love.

And then there’s the prose:

In the lurid, flickering light, he sees that the airplane was not alone, that the sky teems with them, a dozen swooping back and forth . . . and in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water . . . and the airplanes are hungry fish, harrying their prey in the dark.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully written exploration of how war and greed twist people, and with which there’s no such thing as compromise.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.