One day earlier this month, I was frantically getting ready for an author brunch (with the amazing Carol Cassella — more on that in another post!), trying to fit all my warm weather clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and negotiating slushy sidewalks in boots and a down coat as I ran last-minute errands. The next day, I was lounging by the Caribbean with a book in hand, deciding whether to order a cocktail or Diet Coke with lunch. (The choice was easy: cocktail.) What could be better than a few days of sun and relaxation after a brutal Chicago winter? During the winter of 2013-14, Chicago had 26 days when the low temperature was zero or below, setting a record. On March 3, the low was -2 degrees.
The resort offered yoga and spinning classes, tennis, and a workout facility. I intended to take advantage of all of these and brought the required clothing and equipment, but the lounge chairs were just too comfortable . . . and the books I brought were too tempting. I don’t usually like to recommend books that aren’t published yet, but All the Light We Cannot See is an exception — it’s extraordinary! If you’re in a book club, this would be a wonderful choice for a discussion this summer or fall.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (releases 5/6/14)
I know it’s trite to say “I didn’t want the book to end”, but it’s true — I really didn’t want this book to end. I read the last 50 pages very slowly. Anthony Doerr spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two young people struggling to survive during World War II. Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind since early childhood, flees Paris with her father and takes refuge with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. With Marie-Laure and her father is what may or may not be an enormously valuable diamond from the Museum of Natural History, where Monsieur LeBlanc is the locksmith. The Germans are searching throughout France for the diamond, becoming increasingly desperate after the Allies invade Normandy.
While Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, learning Braille and how to navigate the city with her cane, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a German orphanage. A precocious child with a gift for electronics, Werner is saved from a life in the coal mines when a Nazi official identifies his talent and sends him to a paramilitary academy for Hitler Youth. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure converge in August 1944, when the city of Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by fire.
In a Youtube video, Doerr says that he was inspired to write the book to illustrate the power of radio — for good and for evil. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio”. The sound waves of radio are “the light we cannot see”:
Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.
But radio is also the voice of the French resistance:
He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and the transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight . . .
“The light we cannot see” refers to many other things besides sound waves. “Light we cannot see” is different from darkness, or absence of light; it’s there, we just can’t see it. Having gone blind as a child, Marie-Laure vaguely remembers being able to see light. Werner is trapped in darkness after the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he knows there is light above him.
Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.
The English major in me wants to go on and on about the metaphors of light and darkness in the novel, but I’ll spare you. The writing in All the Light We Cannot See is magnificent. Each beautifully crafted chapter is short — no more than a few pages, and some chapters are only one page — and perfectly titled: “Time of the Ostriches”; “The Arrest of the Locksmith”; “The Blade and the Whelk”. The parallel strands within the book — Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s story — appear in alternating chapters, coming together towards the end. The surprise isn’t that they meet, but what happens during the next 60 years. Are people, as Anne Frank famously said, “really good at heart”? All the Light We Cannot See makes us consider that question again.