Reviewed in India on 29 September 2020
"So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
War stories have a way into the heart that none others have. More than 8 decades and counting, World War II never ceases to be astonishing when it comes to writing stories about it, more when it becomes the center of human life. Having recently watched the documentary about the war, I was keen on picking up novels based on it and this one came highly recommended by my online readers’ group.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is the story of the blind Marie-Laure, the self-doubting Werner Pfenning, and the scared old Etienne LeBlanc. Living in places miles away from each other, their lives intertwine in a manner that is beautifully ugly.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
At the age of 6 years, Marie-Laure lost her eyesight, irreversibly. Living with her locksmith father in the city of Paris, she soon learns to navigate the city with the help of the proportionate city model that her father makes for her. Accompanying him to his workplace, the Natural History Museum, she gels up with the researchers and professors there, learning from them their art and work. In the time she is by herself, she reads novels in braille which her father gifts her on her birthdays.
Miles away, the young Werner and his little sister Jutta live in the Children’s House with many other children who have become orphans, listening to the radio broadcast of a science program for kids. Smart and inquisitive, Werner has a talent that makes him popular in his neighborhood, and soon he is being sent to the military school. There, he learns to hone his skills and use them when the time arrives.
In the seafront town of Saint-Malo, Etienne finds himself amidst the war again, this time not as a soldier but a shelterer of his nephew and his young pre-teen daughter who, one day come knocking at his door, all the way from Paris seeking refuge. 20 years and he couldn’t get over the Great War, and this second one has come to haunt him again.
Time flies (or rather crawls with all the horrors around) and the lives of these three people which collide in a manner no one could have imagined. Amidst the atrocities that the marauding armies commit, in Germany occupied France, these people try to survive, save and see another day.
How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?
Let me begin by saying this, war stories leave you with a heartache you never knew existed. Although it is a fictional tale set during the second world war, the emotions are as real as they could get. Beginning with the characters, there aren’t many characters, primarily the three, Marie-Laure, Werner, and Etienne, whose lives the story focuses on and the others come in and go. While Marie-Laure’s character was shown to grow beautifully, embracing her condition and adjusting to the new society post-occupation, Werner, on the other hand, remained the same throughout the years in the book, the same self confused boy and then, a young man. Even Etienne managed to break out of his reverie and embrace the situation as well as he could. Of the other characters which I thought were remarkable were Marie-Laure’s father, Frau Elena, Volkheimer, Madame, and Jutta. Others didn’t make much sense to me, especially the disillusioned Von Rumpel.
This is a slow read, extremely slow at the beginning, tedious to labor through, I really thought of giving it up for the sharp and short sentences that Doerr wrote, but hung on because it felt it will serve its purpose well. Things did improve when I reached halfway, but I still was frustrated every now and then flipping between years which were almost always left on cliffhangers. Doerr made it suspense at a snail’s pace with his fabricated subplot about a diamond and the curse it held. There was also a hint of realism, with the invasion, also came admiration. The shiny boots, the crisp uniforms, the greed to get more to survive better than the rest of their townsfolk and countrymen of occupied France, the Resistance, the normalcy that everyone tried to bring by going about their daily work, coming to terms with vanishings, and natural and violent deaths, and the hope of liberation.
The beauty of this book isn’t in its story or even the way it is told, it is in the details. The lives that get disrupted when war strikes the heart, the emotions of families when they leave the only place they’ve ever known, the dangers that lurk for them at every corner (both sides alike), the predators, the humans who became monsters, the aftermath, all of it is horrific. I had recently watched the documentary of this war, and I could relate to these scenes so much, yet I felt the detachment that one has when they read about things that have happened to others. This story pulled me into two different directions, one part of me wanted to go with Marie-Laure and comfort her for suffering without her father under the Nazi rule, the other wanted me to go and jerk Werner into his senses and let him know his humanity was worth more than everything that he did.
This is the story of an interrupted childhood, broken families, and shattered dreams. This book is so hauntingly beautiful, that you would wish it was true yet you don’t want it to be true. Recommended for everyone, one who reads and one who doesn’t, this book is what the war truly did.