So, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but almost every single person I know recommended this book to me. It’s about France! It’s about books! It’s a prize-winner! No-brainer that Jenny is going to love it! Colleagues, friends, family members, people at church — I swear, I had a lisping six-year-old ask me if I’d read All the Light We Cannot Thee. I kept saying, “Not yet! It’s on my list!” I even gave a couple of copies to other people before I’d read it myself, on the strength of all these recommendations. I asked for a copy for Christmas, knowing I could settle in to read it in the New Year.
Well, now I’ve read it.
Anthony Doerr’s novel brings together two people whose impossibly different experiences of the second World War don’t, in the end, serve to keep them apart. The heroine is Marie-Laure, a girl whose eyes failed her at the age of six. Since then, her father, a curator at the Paris Museum of Natural History, has been teaching her to open herself to her other senses, and creating a tiny wooden model of their neighborhood so she can navigate:
For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.
When the occupation comes, Marie-Laure’s father is sent away with a treasure from the museum, to the seaside town of St Malo, and their peaceful lives are torn apart; for a blessing or for a curse is at first difficult to say.
On the other side of the border, Werner Pfennig is in an orphanage. It has been decreed that the boys in his German village will go to the mines when they turn 15, serving the Reich by digging coal, but Werner is a prodigy. He has electricity in his fingertips, radio in his bones, he can draw a diagram of tubes and trigonometry before you even have to ask, and he knows that all light is invisible, a product of our dark-shrouded brains. After his gift is discovered by a local officer, Werner finds himself at an elite Nazi school whose relentless brutality slowly crushes any spark of decency he had when he entered. Unlike Marie-Laure, whose blindness opened her to beauty and relationship, Werner is hammered into a deeper blindness. Slowly — this is a slow-paced book — and, I’m afraid, inevitably, Doerr brings the two threads together, and the finale offers thoughts about molluscs, the miracle of invisible light, and the kind of hope that can come out of such a desolate storm.
I wanted to love this book, and in fact it is very, very pretty. Doerr writes in short sentences and very brief chapters — often only a page or two, with blank pages between them. His acutely sensory prose brings the very image of the beach of St Malo before you, or the cabinets of the museum of Natural History, or the secret attic of a man who collects ancient radios. It’s vivid and detailed. Yet with all the details, the brine and camphor and rose petals and azure sky, I found it somehow unreal and detached from the events that took place. One of the main images in the book is the creation of a tiny, functional world: Marie-Laure’s father carves their neighborhood in intricate detail so his daughter knows where she’s going; Werner is deeply involved in the world of electronics; Marie-Laure falls into the world of the Braille books she reads; the isolated world of Werner’s school functions (or dysfunctions) as if there were nothing else. This book felt that way to me, as if it floated like a soap bubble. Terrible events take place in it — murder, torture, the rape of young girls — and I felt detached from it. This means that the moral epiphany of one of the characters, the one that unleashed the ending, was also not rooted in the reality I would have preferred; it felt insincere to me, or perhaps just carried lightly. With the exception of one character, I felt no real moral weight to the story (and what a contrast to the other WWII novel I read this year, Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada.)
Anthony Doerr said in an interview with the Powell’s Books blog, referring to his short chapters, “This was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’ ” Hmmm. Maybe I would have preferred less white space to recover in, and more to recover from.