Saturday, September 6, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

Title:  All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2014. 544 pages.
ISBN:  1476746583 / 978-1476746586

Book Source:  I read this book based on its description and a friend's recommendation.

Favorite Quote:  "Don't you want to be alive before you die?"

A blind French girl and a young German soldier are the main characters in All the Light We Cannot See. The book is a World War II story, but it is not about the politics, battles, winners, or losers of the war. It is about two young individuals - one on either side of the conflict - who are both victims of the war.

Both, through varied circumstances, find themselves in the town of Saint-Malo, a small, walled city on the northwest coast of France on the English Channel. "This last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strong point on the Breton coast ... Water surrounds the city on four sides. Its link to the rest of France is tenuous: a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand ... Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation?"

Marie-Laure LeBlanc is alone in the house in Saint-Malo. She waits for her uncle to return. Marie-Laure's story, however, begins in Paris a decade earlier. Her father is the master of locks at the Paris Museum of Natural History. The museum is Marie-Laure's playground, even as her eye sight deteriorates steadily, leaving her blind. As war threatens them in Paris, she and her father escape Paris, eventually coming to her uncle's home in Saint-Malo. War, however, finds them there as well.

Werner Pfennig is hiding in a cellar, unsure of his survival and unsure of what is next as an attack against the Germans in Saint-Malo comes nearer. The start of Werner's story brings us to an orphanage outside of Essen, Germany, where he and his sister Jutta live. His self-taught knowledge of electronics, particularly radios, brings him to the attention of the German army. He sees an education and a way out of a life in the coal mines; he takes it. Behind the army rhetoric, however, he finds a world that leads him to terror and war.

As the individual stories progress, they begin to overlap. Although Werner and Marie-Laure do not actually meet until close to the end of the book, their lives have intersected before. As a reader, it adds so much to the book to see these overlaps when the characters themselves are not aware of them.

Underlying the characters is a sub-plot about a priceless diamond - the Sea of Flames, the legends surrounding it, and those who would do anything to acquire it. It incorporates into the book World War II  history about the theft of museum treasures and those who sought to save them. At times, it seems that the legend of the stone also provides an anchor and hope for Marie-Laure when it appears that there may be none.

The book is written in short chapters in somewhat of a circular fashion - circling between Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo as the attack comes, Marie-Laure's background from Paris onwards to the time of the attack, Werner in Saint-Malo, and his background from the orphanage to this point. Each short chapter moves an aspect of the story forward. It tells the story from the beginning and from the middle at the same time. An odd and intricate construct, but it works in this book.

The structure of the book as an interlocking puzzle mirrors the the motif of puzzles and locks  that recurs repeatedly in the book, particularly in Marie-Laure's story. Her father is a master of locks. The Museum of Natural History is a labyrinth of rooms and hallways. Delicate, maze-like patterns cover the shells Marie-Laure examines at the museum. Marie-Laure's father's gifts to her always involve a puzzle. The storage of the Sea of Flames involves a set of thirteen nested locks. The model of the city that Marie-Laure's father builds to help her navigate without sight appears to her at first as a maze. The grotto by the sea lies behind a locked door and an alleyway that is hidden until you are upon it. Finally, the observation"What mazes there are in this world. The branches of tress, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models. Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of eagles. None more complicated than the human brain ... what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes."

The motif is an accurate description for the book itself - it creates its own beautifully constructed, interconnected universe with Marie-Laure and Werner spinning at its center.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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