Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time. Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going. My old friends. Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.
This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend: Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.
It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years. His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp. Visceral. You cannot shake the watermark of them. This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.
At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it. Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family. Radio is a tool used for savage murder. Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.
The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive. Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness. She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells. She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood. She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.
Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it. He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse. Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick: Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it?
The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel. Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can: people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings. From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it. And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.
Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy. There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain. Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes. For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever? To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?
By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled. It’s a delicious tableau: A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.
I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work. My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope. Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?
Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read. More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature. How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?
Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.
And also here: