Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book review: All the Light We Cannot See

As near as I can tell, Anthony Doerr's latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is the current favorite of book clubs all across America. I learned of the book because my mother had read it as the selection for her book club. And fellow book club member Jim Kidwell's mother had also read the novel because it was the choice for her book club. It stands to reason, considering that the novel was this year awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And judging from the reception the novel has received from the literary press, Anthony Doerr has set his feet firmly on the path toward that most elusive of states: "successful novelist."

All the Light... is set in the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in France during World War II. A blind French girl, Marie-Laure, huddles in the home of her eccentric uncle, abandoned and alone, the unwitting guardian of a secret treasure. At the same time, a conscripted German soldier, Werner, the orphaned German boy with a talent for understanding radio circuitry, works to find the source of radio signals that have been emitting from within Saint-Malo, relaying information to the French Resistance. Even as the two of them ponder their respective predicaments, pamphlets warning of impending bombardment blow through the streets of the nearly-empty town.

As the novel progresses, we learn the circumstances and events that have led to this situation. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History, separated by the tides of war from her father and her Paris home. Werner, because of his technical acumen, has been conscripted into the National Socialist movement, where he is told that cruelty and ruthless efficiency are virtues. As the war grinds forward, these two protagonists, seemingly set upon divergent and opposing paths, are somehow drawn together, somehow presented with an opportunity to bring about the triumph of compassion and humanity over unspeakable evil.

I found Doerr's prose to be compelling and humane. He masterfully sets a mood of dreadful expectation in the opening lines of the novel and that expectation is maintained. He has a knack for inserting descriptive sentences at precise intervals so that the reader never loses a sense of being present in the moment. I found it interesting and perhaps suiting that Doerr does not delve deeply into the specifics of Nazi cruelty, but skirts delicately around the most horrible events.

Consider this excerpt. Werner has come to the sick ward of the Nazi youth training camp to check on his friend, Frederik, who was beaten by bigger, stronger boys in the school:
A single bed with blood in it. Blood on the pillow and on the sheets and even on the enameled metal of the bed frame. Pink rags in a basin. Half-unrolled bandage on the floor. The nurse bustles over and grimaces at Werner. Outside of the kitchens, she is the only woman at the school.
"Why so much blood?" he asks.
She sets four fingers across her lips. Debating perhaps whether to tell him or pretend she does not know. Accusation or resignation or complicity.
"Where is he?
"Leipzig. For surgery." She touches a round white button on her uniform with what might be an inconveniently trembling finger. Otherwise her manner is entirely stern.
"What happened?"
"Shouldn't you be at noontime meal?"
Each time he blinks, he sees the men of his childhood, laid-off miners drifting through back alleys, men with hooks for fingers and vacuums for eyes; he sees Bastian standing over a smoking river, snow falling all around him. Führer, folk, fatherland. Steel your body, steel your soul.
"When will he be back?"
"Oh, she says, a soft enough word. She shakes her head.
So much is said without elaborating on the horrible details of what happened to the boy. Some might call this a cop-out, but I disagree. In much of today's literature, gruesomeness and unsettling details seem to be the trend. (Read any Cormac McCarthy novel for examples.) But I found Doerr's approach more palatable and no less effective. Any book that deals with Nazis and World War II is necessarily going to touch on some nasty subject matter. But this novel is written in such a way that even my delicately sensitive mother could enjoy it. And one can easily argue that by leaving the details to the reader's imagination, the cruelty is more mysterious and terrible.

All the Light We Cannot See is a poignant coming-of-age novel, with well-drawn characters that I genuinely cared about. It successfully depicts the cruelty of war and the corruption of National Socialism, of how it victimizes even its own adherents.

After reading this book, I'm eagerly anticipating Doerr's next novel, whatever it may be. I highly recommend this novel.

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