“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
I’m going to be honest – love for this book didn’t hit me straight away. In fact, my first attempt to read it last year ended with me putting it aside and going to find something easier, lighter and less descriptive to read. If you like straight-ahead, linear, plot-driven war novels, this is not the book for you. It does have a central plot that brings the two characters together – a mystery about a possibly magic gem hunted by an evil, terminally ill Nazi officer – but that is almost beside the point.
It took me about fifty pages to really get into the book and figure out the structure, but once I did, I couldn’t stop. What kept me turning pages, rather, were the characters’ lives and the short, well-crafted scenes. Anthony Doerr’s writing is elegant and evocative. . It’s a beautiful work of genius, but it does get a little dense at times; the prose bloated by details. It’s the harrowing story of a childhood torn apart by war. He treats two prime characters with equal empathy, and their interaction, when they finally meet is not your conventional wartime love story. It is much better, much more bittersweet and haunting.
Marie Laure LeBlanc is a French girl who had gone blind at age 6. She and her father, Daniel, fled Paris ahead of the German invasion, arriving in the ancient walled port city of Saint Malo in northwest France to stay with her great uncle, Etienne. They bring with them a large and infamous diamond ‘Sea of Flames’, to save it from the Nazis.
Werner and Jutta Pfennig are raised in a German orphanage after their father is killed in the local mine. Werner has a gift for electronics, and is sent to a special school where, despite the many horrors of the experience, his talent is nurtured. He develops technology for locating radio sources, and is rushed into the Wehrmacht to apply his skill in the war. His assignment brings him to Saint Malo, where his path and Marie Laure’s intersect. Both of their stories are told with sensitivity and sympathy, each one forced down a path by their personal circumstances and by that destructive monster – war.
The story is told primarily in alternating Marie Laure’s and Werner’s experiences. But there is a third stream as well, that of Sargent Von Rumpel, a gem appraiser drafted by the Reich to examine the jewels captured by the military and collect the best for a special collection. He becomes obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames. He is pretty much the prototypical evil Nazi, completely corrupt, greedy, cruel, as close to a stick-figure characterization as there is in the book. But his evildoing provides the danger needed to move the story forward.
There may not be words enough to exclaim just how magnificent an accomplishment this book is. Amazing, spectacular, incredible, moving, engaging, emotional, gripping, celestial, soulful, and bloody fracking brilliant might give some indication. There is so much going on here. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display that the book rewards a closer reading. In addition to a deft application of mirroring in the experiences of Werner and Marie Laure, Writer brings a poet’s sense of imagery and magic.
I think this is the kind of book you will never appreciate if you stop too soon, I learned that lesson. From the first to last page, there is a running theme of interconnectedness, of invisible lines running parallel to one another and sometimes, just sometimes, crossing in the strangest of ways. These two lives we are introduced to seem to be worlds apart, and yet they come together and influence one another. It was this, more than the predictably awful tale of war, that made me feel quite emotional.
All the Light We Cannot See is haunting. That’s how I would describe it. From the chillingly beautiful prose, to the realization of what the title actually means: that underneath the surface of history, there is light – and stories – that have not been seen; that have gone untold. Scientifically, we only see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum; historically, we only see a small portion of the story.
My Rating : 5/5