My mother mailed her copy of Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See to me several months ago. She and my father and my grandmother pass books around like a joint at a college party –not that I would know anything about that. When they finish reading a book, they write their initials and the date they finished the book on the first page. This is an important ritual for them for as much as they read, it is easy to forget whether one has read the book being passed to them. It is also an interesting communal exercise, making one’s mark upon a shared experience.
I placed the book at the top of my pile of unread books and as the weeks droned by, it shifted ever lower on the stack as I continued to add new books to the top of the pile. It was not as though I did not want to read the book. It had several points in its favor already: all three of my aforementioned family members read it and enjoyed it, they thought so highly of it that they mailed their copy to me, and the book was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Still, I found it difficult to be in the mood to read it. I had made the unforgivable error of judging the book by its cover. It is a pretty cover, but dour. The blue color palette is infected with a green tint, turning sickly the image of what I would expect is a beautiful seaside city. The somber cover seemed to suggest there was no joy to be found within the pages. Finally, after a telephone call during which my mother playfully shamed me for not having read it yet, and having just finished what had been my current read, I gritted my teeth and withdrew the book from the lower half of my pile of unread books.
This book is beautiful. I loved it. I have enjoyed several books recently, even given them five-star ratings on goodreads.com, but I have not loved a book since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. With All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr presents to the world a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of Marie-Laure, a young, sightless girl struggling to survive during the German occupation of France during World War II. Marie-Laure lives in France with her father, a man devoted to his young daughter in a way that made me wish I had a daughter of my own so I could devote myself to her just as much. Their relationship was sweet and wonderful. The sacrifices he makes for her empower her, force her to think critically and creatively, pay attention to her surroundings. Instead of giving up and letting his blind daughter be a helpless burden, Marie-Laure’s father teaches her to live with her disability, not suffer it. Doerr’s descriptions of Marie-Laure’s world are limited to sound, smell, and touch and he does such a magnificent job of helping the reader experience the girl’s sometimes frightening world through her senses. Through Marie-Laure’s experiences, I found new wonder for the world around me.
A simultaneous timeline is told in alternating chapters, introducing us to Werner, a young German boy growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister. We meet Werner as an innocent boy with a penchant for radio repair and follow him to his conscription as a cog in the Third Reich’s war machine. In telling Werner’s story, Doerr performs the impressive feat of humanizing a German soldier during World War II, men many non-Germans find it easy to believe were monstrous people. How could we not after what they did? Werner’s story reminds us that many German soldiers were normal people, young boys plucked from their civilian lives and thrown into terrifying combat. They were told it was their patriotic duty. They often felt there was no other option. They were not all members of the vicious Einsatzgruppen. Werner is a typical kid aside from being a savant of radio repair. He is curious about the world around him, loves his sister, and enjoys listening to educational French radio programs with her and the other orphans at their home. He is not the bloodthirsty, violent, anti-Semite we grow up reading about in our history schoolbooks. Neither is his friend, Frederick, a frail but strong-hearted boy fascinated by birds. Neither is his squad mate, Volkheimer, a mountainous young man who enjoys classical music and who looks after Werner like a little brother. They are just boys and young men stuck in an awful place at an awful time and they do what they need to do to come out the other side alive. It is a tremendous achievement to be able to tell Werner’s story in such a way as to make the reader nearly forget they are rooting for one of Hitler’s soldiers. Werner’s story was far and away my favorite part of the novel.
When I read the last lovely page, I sighed contentedly like a hound dog lazing in a patch of sunlight, and wrote my initials and the date on the front page next to those of my grandmother, my mother, and my father. To whom shall I send this copy next?