All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Anthony Doerr’s masterful novel, set in World War II, is simultaneously about the smallest things – mazes, the tiniest wiring inside radios, and hidden mollusks – and about the most enormous ones – war and peace, identity, love, and light and darkness.
All the Light We Cannot See tells two interwoven stories: that of Marie-Laure, a blind adolescent girl in France and that of Werner Pfennig, an orphaned boy in Germany with natural talent for engineering who is chosen to train for Hitler’s army.The novel is composed of small, glimmering pieces, each polished to a brilliance that echoes the large diamond at the story’s center, and they fit together at the end with a satisfying click as hidden and carefully designed as the complex boxes that Marie-Laure’s father hand-makes to hide a surprise for her each birthday morning.
The novel is full of images as beautiful as they are indelible, and Doerr’s writing is nothing short of lambently miraculous: Marie-Laure and her great-uncle dancing under the attic eaves to contraband music on the radio, the tiny, intricate scale models of their neighborhood that Marie-Laure’s father builds so that his daughter might learn by touch her way around, Werner’s fingers turning the dial on a radio that he has fixed, static giving way to sudden, startling sound, the dark, snail-filled grotto in the sea to which Marie-Laure is given the key, Werner and his sister Jutta’s white-blond hair.
As glorious as the sentences of All the Light We Cannot See are, the writing is also aware of all the parts of this life that exist beyond the realm of articulation. “It is embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is,” Jutta thinks towards the end of the book, and I couldn’t help thinking this was Doerr himself commenting on the limitations of speech. The static of a radio, the deafening silence that follows the concussive sound of bombs exploding, the almost imperceptible sound of fingers flying across Braille. Just as these non-verbal sounds fill our lives they fill the pages of All the Light We Cannot See and they convey so much about the human experience.
It is hard to choose a central theme in a novel so rich with them, but one is surely the tension and interplay between light and dark. The story’s title, of course, foregrounds this theme, and over and over again Doerr presents us with ways that it plays out in wartime. The moon, flashes of gunfire in the darkness, the scientific observation that “all light is invisible,” and, most of all, a blind protagonist who sees more of this life than almost anyone else. There is so much light we cannot see, Doerr asserts, just as there is so much of the human experience we cannot fully capture in words. In reading All the Light We Cannot See we watch “the mist begins to suffuse with light” and touch the hem of the human experience. There is no higher accomplishment in writing.
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