by Jay O'Toole
This is a book review that meets one of the requirements of the Rising Stars Program.
|SPOILER ALERT!!! DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW, UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK!
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is an interesting demonstration of the many and varied aspects of the title itself. The light we cannot see seems an almost impossible concept at first glance. We see light with our eyes. The light we cannot see with our eyes does not exist for our minds. Or does it?
Scientifically speaking, the human eye can only see a minimal band of light compared to all of the light, that exists in the Creation. Dogs, cats and various other animals can see more light than humans can see. Maybe, just maybe there is more to life than what the human mind can comprehend with the five physical senses. Light is merely one physical touch-point out of five with with which this point can be made.
All The Light We Cannot See begins with me, the reader. There is a wealth of novel information in written format, that I have often been unable to comprehend or to process because of the formatting of the author's words. Anthony Doerr has created a format, that could attract me to more novels, if more writers used this formatting principle. Throughout a book of 530 pages, there is maybe one chapter, that comes close to a length of ten pages. That particular one is about seven pages long.
Many authors write long chapters of 15-20 pages, having chapter titles, that are merely numbers. Though I have never been medically diagnosed with visual processing disorder, I can confess that my eyes are often lost in the minutiae of too many words. I lose the plot and the main themes of the story, when the pages are wall-to-wall words, droning on and on and on for too many pages ad infinitum.
Yet, Anthony Doerr has given me a true gift. He has presented me with a very readable book in which the chapters range from one to five pages on average with chapter titles, that give an important piece of information "up-front."
Why am I spending so much time discussing the formatting of Doerr's book? This is because the formatting is rare in my experience as a book reader. I typically do not bother with trying to read novels, since there are usually so many difficult aspects to reading a novel. This being said, the few novels I have surmounting in my lifetime have consistently taken me six months to read. All The Light We Cannot See was completed by me in just six weeks. This is a phenomenal accomplishment for me! I literally "sped" through Doerr's book, even though I expect the other readers in my family to complete the same number of pages in just a week or two, max.
There is one book I have read multiple times. It has been accomplished maybe once, while looking at the words on page. I have completed the same book about 15-20 times as a book-on-tape. For the Christians, who are reading this, I will give you a comparison. I have read The Holy Bible more than once by reading the words, but my best time-frame is about 14 months for a completion of reading it all the way through. Listening to Alexander Scourby read The Bible to me is a pleasant endeavor to be sure.
The main characters of All The Light We Cannot See are Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Throughout the book there appears to be two separate stories being told. Werner grows up in Zollverein, Germany to become a German soldier. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, France having lost her sight early in life about the age of six. Werner sees things he wishes he did not have to see. Marie-Laure can only imagine the things she hears and touches. Werner grows up exploring the world of sound through his skills as a radio repairman and later as a radio-wave tracker for the German army. Marie-Laure grows up exploring the world of sight through her skilled fingers, that touch her father's three-dimensional "maps" of the cities in which she lives as well as in the Braille version of Jules Vernes' classic, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
There is an endearing cast of supporting characters.
For Marie-Laure her father, Daniel LeBlanc, cares for her, when she is very young into her teens by helping her to know her way around Paris & Saint-Malo through the use of 3-D models of the towns, that she can touch and learn how to go places by herself or at least understanding where she is as she is going. Later in the story Madame Manec, the housekeeper at Number 4 Rue Vauborel, and Etienne LeBlanc, her great uncle take over as guides for Marie-Laure, when her father is taken captive by the occupying German army (in this tale from the era of World War II,) is interned in a prison camp and is ultimately written out of her life. Madame Manec helps Marie-Laure to experience the beach and the ocean, while learning how to help the Resistance. Etienne shows Marie-Laure, that someone, who has been emotionally-damaged by war can still be a vital part of winning the war, that so wounded him.
Werner Pfennig grows up in Children's House in Zollverein, Germany with the close, dear relationship to his sister, Jutta, and the good guidance of the house Mum, Frau Elena. He spends long hours at night trying to hear any broadcast on the old radio he has been allowed to repair and to keep for his own. He hears a Frenchman teaching science lessons late at night, which is the first tie between his life's story and that of Marie-Laure's, since we later find out, that the Frenchman teacher was her grandfather, Henri.
When Werner is 14 he has the opportunity (or the conscription, if you will) to attend the training school of Schulpforta in which mere boys are trained to be soldiers in the German army. There, he meets Frank Volkheimer, who is not much more than a boy himself, but in physical appearance he is a giant among men. Volkheimer becomes a lifelong friend and confidant of Werner's helping to get him plumb jobs in the army, avoiding the position of frontline "cannon fodder."
Werner's bunkmate, Frederick, is considered weak by the other boys in the school, although how can someone be weak, when he has as strong and understanding a mind as Frederick does to understand the calls and the shapes of myriad birds and who refuses to harm another human life, when all the rest are dowsing the prisoner with buckets of water, while the prisoner is chained to a post in freezing temperatures? Ultimately, Frederick's small physical stature and physical weakness compared to the other boys gets him beaten so badly, that he is brain damaged, living his adult life without the cognition of his youth.
Werner, Volkheimer and another soldier, Bernd are trapped in the basement of the Hotel of Bees due to a vicious aerial attack on Saint-Malo. Bernd dies during their entombment, but ultimately, Volkheimer gets Werner and himself free through the use of explosives. Werner finds Number 4 Rue Vauborel, where he meets Marie-Laure. They spend just a few hours together before he helps her to escape to freedom, while he himself is captured.
Other themes include a sergeant-major, who is dying of cancer and who is desperate to find the Sea of Flames, the precious stone with supposed magical properties, which will keep the owner of the stone from dying. This is the obvious draw for him.
Ultimately, the precious stone is lost to the sea; Werner dies by stepping on a landmine, while escaping from a prison camp; Jutta, Frau Elena and three other girls are shamefully treated, when they are forced to live and to work in Berlin and Marie-Laure never has a final answer, regarding her dear father, who left her so many years ago with the promise, "I'll be right back!"
In some ways All The Light We Cannot See teaches lessons, which are akin to those we learn in The Lord of the Ring trilogy.
1. People, who cherish and pursue inanimate objects as the highest value in life, often die in the pursuit of those things.
2. People, who value other people, are willing, like Werner to throw precious stones into the bottom of the sea, holding onto the key to someone else's heart.
3. The thoughts we write about life and about the loved ones in our lives have more lasting value than all the precious metals and precious stones in the world.
Though Werner and Marie-Laure did not ultimately "live happily ever," together as I had hoped. Werner showed that a lasting love for Marie-Laure started in an afternoon, reaching out to her from the grave, since in the end his sister, Jutta, returned the KEY of their love to Marie-Laure, who continued to hear "the sounds of everyone hurrying through the cold," knowing in her heart, that she could see All The Light We Cannot See.
by Jay O'Toole
on January 9th, 2017