All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the newest book I’ve read in a long time, weaves together the stories of a young French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind and a German orphan boy, Werner, who is gifted at mathematics and tech. Over the years of the Second World War, their lives intersect at surprising points. I enjoyed the style: the present tense, poetic descriptions of the scenes. The best part was how it captured snapshots of what “the war” was like, and how it followed up with the characters as adults, revealing how their childhood experience of World War II forever changed the direction of their lifelines, like changing the threads and changing the whole tapestry.
Some themes I picked out were:
-intransigence of life
-the war: living through it, how actions by leaders at the state or military level trickle down into daily life
-overcoming trials: carrying on or just going along is contrasted in Marie Laure and Werner. Werner accepts a deepening spiral of Nazi commands that drags him into moral quicksand
-happiness: what is it? All the Light We Cannot See, would say, rightly, that it is not a permanent state, but something we can catch glimpses of if we try to do our honest best in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Sometimes circumstances can snatch it away entirely, such as when Marie loses her father.
-the randomness of birth and outcomes: circumstances beyond our control determine a lot of what happens in our lives
-freedom despite the randomness: But free will matters too, and our approach and our willingness to respond can change things for the better. Werner does finally learn this lesson, I believe.
Over all, it seems very accurate about the nastier aspects of war and difficult circumstances. I would say the balance the book strikes between free will and circumstance is one of its best features.
It’s not a particularly religious book, and it captures some very unpleasant wartime realities, but I think it’s pretty accurate about what it means to make good choices and try to live a good life on the ground. And it’s not the darkest book I’ve ever read; I’d say Graham Greene is darker, and he was Catholic.
Here are some quotations I picked out:
From Werner’s childhood, the contrast between his orphange and the opulence of the SS Officer’s home:
“The lance corporal looks around the room–the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children–with equal measures of condescension and hostility.” (80) [He is coming to collect Werner to repair the radio of the SS Officer Siedler. Werner goes there and successfully repairs the radio.]
“Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. ‘Outstanding,’ he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. ‘Cream is forbidden. I know. But”–he puts his forefinger to his lips–“there are ways around such things. Go on.'” (83)
Marie Laure misses her father:
“Oh, to the free. To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.” (403)
Finally, this quote from the end shows the ripples of the war in the characters’ later lives. Jutta, Werner’s sister, receives a token from Werner that had belonged to Marie Laure, so Jutta goes to visit, but she is very nervous and self-conscious about her German-ness as she travels:
Jutta and her son ride the train to visit Marie Laure in France:
“Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.
He’ll say, You did this to me.
Please. Not in front of my son.
But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.” (507)
I love how this final quote captures how we sometimes feel like others can see through us, can read our invisible thoughts, and we can become very paranoid about nothing.