Sunday, August 12, 2018

All The Light We Cannot See: a very short review

I was standing in the ferry line, reading Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, when a man I (casually) know asked me: "What do you think of that book?"

"Phenomenal! Amazing! Stupendous!" I replied.

He sniffed, and allowed as to how he was disappointed: "I guess, after all the things everyone was saying, I just expected something more."

No doubt! You have high, High, HIGH expectations when you embark upon All The Light We Cannot See, a book which won the Pulitzer Prize, and many other prizes, and was short-listed for every prize it didn't win, and which made everybody's 10 books of the year list, and which spent a remarkable 3 YEARS on the New York Times best-seller list.

Yes. It's that book.

Arriving, roughly, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, All The Light We Cannot See is a work of historical fiction set during World War II, and follows two simply remarkable and endlessly fascinating protagonists: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphan German boy.

What genius this is!

Suddenly, simply, and certainly, "through the eyes of a child," we have shifted from Just Another World War II Novel to something different, something special.

Doerr develops this difference, this perspective, this new vision, with a variety of simple, yet effective, techniques.

The story unfolds as a series of short chapters, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, alternating between each story, occasionally diverting to relate the stories of a few other crucial characters, but generally just letting us experience events as Marie-Laure and Werner did.

And the story-telling is not simply chronological; it moves forward, then backward, dropping in and out of their lives as they, and the world, change.

These are well-trodden paths, and well-known approaches, to telling this story. No new literary techniques are revealed here.

And, yes, I know: you've heard this story before.

But Doerr's touch is so careful, so authentic, so pure, that you are transported, perhaps even mesmerized.

Partly, it is due to Doerr's open heart. Here he is, trying to help us understand what it is to be blind:

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer, an older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high aobve the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry acros farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth's crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the oacean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.

And here, in a gripping depiction of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of a World War I veteran:

Now Etienne hyperventilates. At thirty-four minutes by his wrist-watch, he puts on his shoes and a hat that belonged to his father. Stands in the foyer summoning all his resolve. When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago, he tried to make eye contact, to present what might be considered a normal appearance. But the attacks were sly, unpredictable, devastating; they sneaked up on him like bandits. First a terrible ominousness would fill the air. Then any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright. He could not walk for the thundering of his own feet. Little eyeballs blinked at him from the cobblestones. Corpses stirred in the shadows. When Madame Manec would help him home, he'd crawl into the darkest corner of his bed and belt pillows around his ears. All his energy would go into ignoring the pounding of his own pulse.

And here, the life of orphan siblings in pre-war Germany:

Werner and Jutta sift through glistening piles of black dust; they clamber up mountains of rusting machines. They tear berries out of brambles and dandelions out of fields. Sometimes they manage to find potato peels or carrot greens in trash bins; other afternoons they collect paper to draw on, or old toothpaste tubes from which the last dregs can be squeezed out and dried into chalk. Once in a while Werner tows Jutta as far as the entrance to Pit Nine, the largest of the mines, wrapped in noise, lit like the pilot at the center of a gas furnace, a five-story coal elevator crouched over it, cables swinging, hammers banging, men shouting, an entire mapful of pleated and corrugated industry stretching into the distance on all sides, and they watch the coal cars trundling up from the earth and the miners spilling out of warehouses with their lunch pails toward the mouth of the elevator like insects toward a lighted trap.

Although Marie-Laure is surely the more memorable and more-easily-loved of the two, my heart was wonderfully drawn to Werner, particularly the description of how he found his love for radios, and his talent for understanding how they work:

what he loves most is building things, working with his hands, connecting his fingers to the engine of his mind. Werner repairs a neighbor's sewing machine, the Children's House grandfather clock. He builds a pulley system to wind laundry from the sunshine back indoors, and a simple alarm made from a battery, a bell, and wire so that Frau Elena will know if a toddler has wandered outside. He invents a machine to slice carrots: lift a lever, nineteen blades drop, and the carrot falls apart into twenty neat cylinders.

One day a neighbor's wireless goes out, and Frau Elena suggests Werner have a look. He unscrews the back plate, waggles the tubes back and forth. One is not seated properly, and he fits it back into its groove. The radio comes back to life, and the neighbor shrieks with delight. Before long, people are stopping by Children's House every week to ask for the radio repairman. When they see thirteen-year-old Werner come down from the attic, rubbing his eyes, shocks of white hair sticking up off his head, homemade toolbox hanging from his fist, they start at him with the same skeptical smirk.

The older sets are the easiest to fix: simpler circuitry, uniform tubes. Maybe it's wax dripping from the conenser or charcoal built up on a resistor. Even in the newest sets, Werner can usually puzzle out a solution. He dismantles the machine, starts into it circuits, lets his fingers trace the journeys of electrons. Power source, triode, resistor, coil. Loudspeaker. His mind shapes itself around the problem, disorder becomes order, the obstacle reveals itself, and before long the radio is fixed.

I could go on forever.

But, better, you can discover this treasure of a book yourself, or let it discover you when it is ready.

Oh, by the way:

  • There's a cursed diamond,
  • and a complex metaphor involving Captain Nemo,
  • and the most practical and sensible housekeeper ever born,
  • and a (literally) cancerous super-villain,
  • and John James Audobon's Birds of America,
  • and Clair de Lune.

And more. Oh, so, so much more.

You will surely be disappointed, after everything everyone has said.

But: you will sit; you will sigh; you will look at a snail on the wall.

And nothing will ever be the same again.

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