Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
For the Writer…
Once in a while, one comes across a book that makes one sit up in his chair and whisper a declaration. This is going to be a great book. When one gently lays the work on a table, the last words still lingering, the same reader sighs, “Just as I thought.”
What distinguishes Anthony Doerr’s prose?
His choices and his tools. Doerr’s palette is splashed with tense (the book is written in the present tense), figures of speech, viewpoint and vantage point, historical backdrop, and a genre mix, contributing to a canvas in front of which the reader can stand and marvel for hours.
All the Light marches along — a forced march of the conscript and the conquered — at a quick pace, which is a good thing at five hundred and thirty pages. The reasons? The simple present tense sets the reader in the moment as if watching a stage play, and in that immediacy of tense is an inherent foreboding, a present expectation of interruption. In addition, Doerr has kept his sentences and clauses short, terse, timed like the metered intake and exhale of a breath, a shorter expectant breath.
Werner risks a single glance at his sister. Her attention stays fixed on the visitor. The corporal picks up a book from the parlor table—a children’s book about a talking train—and turns every one of its pages before dropping it. Then he says something Werner cannot hear.
Frau Elena folds her hands over her apron, and Werner can see she has done so to keep them from shaking. “Werner,” she calls in a slow dreamlike voice, without taking her eyes from the corporal. “This man says he has a wireless in need of—“
“Bring your tools,” the man says. [p.80]
And on and on the narrative breathes, until the reader inhales and exhales with the characters. And Doerr leads you further into his character’s world by deepening the reader’s experience of it through metaphor, similes and cinematic detail.
A cookbook lies face down in her path like a shot-gunned bird. [p.101]
A light emerges, a light not kindled, Werner prays, by his own imagination: an amber beam wandering the dust. It shuttles across debris, illuminates a fallen hunk of wall, lights up a twisted piece of shelving. It roves over a pair of metal cabinets that have been warped and mauled as if a giant hand has reached down and torn each in half. It shines on spilled toolboxes and broken pegboards and a dozen jars full of screws and nails. [p.102]
Sheets of blackened paper scuttle past their feet. Shadows whisper in the trees. A ruptured melon lolls in the drive like an amputated head. The locksmith is seeing too much. [p.108]
Her uncle seems almost a child, monastic in the modesty of his needs and wholly independent of any sort of temporal obligations. And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind. [p.157]
October is here, and bright cold winds ought to pour off the ocean; leaves ought to tumble down the alleys. But the wind has come and gone. As if deciding it did not like the changes here. [p.164]
The reader will not cover two pages without treading on an explosion of detail and figures of speech. And the reader will be alternately immersed into the present sensory world of Marie-Laure, a sightless French girl, and Werner, a conflicted German orphan conscripted into the Hitler youth. The Second World War as backdrop, itself a character and the third strand in the rope that quietly is fashioned into an inescapable noose while the reader watches on.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the alternating chapters are long and irritatingly pleasurable. Doerr’s chapters are short and change viewpoint as easily, as gracefully as following the shuttlecock in a badminton match, in a deadly game. Just one more little chapter, promises the reader, as one turns to ten. It is an effective means of mounting suspense and joins the breathing in and exhales of apprehension in the sentence construction. The technique is well suited to Middle grade or YA.
All the Light is historical fiction. The details of WWII, one soon realizes, have been scrupulously researched. The places are real, its characters likely, and their pursuits documented. The war rolls into Paris like an unstoppable tsunami, everything and everyone unable to escape its deluge, a flood of dangerous debris and whirlpools, which threaten to suck down its victims at any random moment.
But it is also in the classic mix of a dramatic m ystery thriller. A missing gem allegedly carrying a curse, a relentless villain using his military rank as a Nazi to pursue the prize of a lifetime, the jewel of France hidden in the unlikeliest of places. Yet the relationships within this story run deeper than the often-utilitarian characters in a stock thriller. And what the hapless—may we call them innocents— think about, philosophize about lifts the novel into literary fiction.
All the Light also feels like a memoir. The simple present tense and strong points of view in Marie-Laure and Werner d
raw the growing shadow of the war in close, giving the reader a personal perspectiv
e through the reflections of the protagonists. Even romance is added to the mix as inexorable forces converge.
And, for writers who debate such things, the novel has a message. It begins with the title as guide and slowly, like a sunrise, all the light we cannot see glows within its pages. However, there is a hint of naiveté in All the Light’s message. Well intended or not, the novel hints of humanist ideals. The light is found within, seemingly inherent in the imaginations and convictions of Marie Laure and Werner, and it lingers in creation, which surrounds and invades depravity like a great panacea, if we could but see it. Wasn’t it a humanist ideal, albeit a perverse one, which lead to the Second World War in the first place? Historically, Humanist ideals have been the children of polity and the slaves of power, and power is as contagious as the plague and very persuasive. A conquering people carry their gods with them. How else can we explain large groups of people swept up in a flood of expansionism and genocide? How humans discern good from evil and obtain the power to act on that which is good is the foundational problem. It is the question which All the Light raises and answers, but if that ability were innate, as I think Doerr is suggesting, if the power to be good resided solely within the grasp of our imaginations, if nature were more than a clue and a mentor but also an enabler, then atrocities, such as that which consumed and are consuming the larger part of this world’s population, would be eradicated. They have not.
This writer is reminded of words of another’s testimony to light we cannot see, the light we have failed to see because we dwell in darkness. He said, “I am the light of the world and the one who follows me shall never walk in darkness.” And Christ’s testimony comes with more than a declaration, but with the power to be and behave as Christ’s own through His Spirit.