ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, 2014)
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever"
This engrossing novel follows the parallel lives of a young German boy (Werner Pffnig) and a young French girl (Marie Laure) caught up in the mayhem and confusion of the second world war.
The novel’s year zero is 1944 and the complex yet brilliant plotted story shifts back and forward in time.
Short chapters give the urgency of a thriller yet patiently piece together the threads that briefly and movingly bring these two blighted lives together.
Doerr unsentimentally shows us how ordinary lives are corrupted by the horror of war.
One of the real strengths of the novel is that our sympathies lie with both of the main characters even though conventionally speaking they are mortal enemies and Werner is alined with the morally depraved Hitler youth.
We feel compassion for Werner because we see that he is as much a victim of circumstances as Marie Laure is. Both come from broken families and are forced into making raw choices in order to survive.
He is forced to follow the Nazi line knowing that that death is the alternative. Frederick, a boy he befriends tells Werner that he needs to recognize that as part of the machinery of the Hitler Youth he no longer owns his life. The Third Reich’s project is ruthless and uncompromising : “We are ordering the evolution of the species”.
Ultimately, their transient connection is made possible through illicit radio broadcasts. Werner’s early fascination with transistor sets come from pre-war transmissions in French. He masters the complexity of these devices which serve both as tools for propaganda purposes but, ultimately, represent a vital source of inspiration and communication.
Werner visualizes the airwaves by equating them to “a feeling like shutting your eyes and feeling your way down a mile long thread”. Marie Laure is blind and so finds her way around first with the help of her father’s meticulous models of the Paris neighborhood and then in the exile of Saint Malo by memorizing the number of steps and storm drains.
In other words, both finds their place in the world without sight, something made possible because “mathematically all of light is invisible”.
A worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Doerr presents us with a rich and compassionate story in which light metaphorically signifies truth, understanding and illumination, shining through even the darkest moments in history.