Thursday, January 29, 2015

"All the Light We Cannot See": Amazing. Simply Amazing.

"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." 

In the past year, I've read about 100 books.  I could argue, that Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" is the best one that I've read, and even more than that, maybe one of the best books I have ever read.  There's so much to love about this book - the short intriguing chapters (many are only a page and a half long), the poetic writing style that is both engaging and challenging, the characters who are now lodged in my brain forever, the perspective of WWII that Doerr presents with the two separate story lines which are not typical, but show another side of the war that I never contemplated - the side of choices that people had to make in wartime, or maybe it's Doerr's superb storytelling ability. Even when he switches back and forth in time sequence, and storyline from chapter to chapter, he keeps his reader with him.  When I fall into a book that I don't want to finish because I don't want to lose the characters, when I am both horrified and mesmerized by what I read on every page, when my heart races as the characters endure hardships and terrifying situations, and when I am somehow transported to another time and place - I know I am reading masterpiece.

After I finished the last page of "All the Light We Cannot See" I said, "Wow."  I was home alone and although I had about 1,000,000 other things to do, I needed to keep reading the last 100 pages of the book to find out what happened to Werner Phennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc. The story opens in Saint-Malo, a small (and dramatic) walled city in Brittany that has been occupied by German soldiers and as we find out in the subscript at the beginning of the novel, Saint-Malo "was almost totally destroyed by fire . . . Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree." Marie-Laure, who is in her attic, hears something dropping from planes and with her acute senses due to her blindness, discerns that these are leaflets because she can smell the fresh ink.  In the same town at the same time, Werner, a young German soldier who specializes in radios, is trapped in the basement rubble of a nearby hotel.  These two characters will intersect in magical ways throughout the novel.

Marie-Laure lives with her father who is the key keeper at a museum in Paris.  At age 6, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight and her father relentlessly helps her to cope with the adversities she faces as a young blind girl.  He constructs elaborate scale models of their neighborhood for her to study and encourages her to find her way and lead their walks, so she can learn independence.  He also constructs intricate puzzle boxes for her to solve.  When the war begins, their world,  like the worlds of so many others, changes drastically.  The museum owner entrusts one of the most sought after stones in the world, The Sea of Flames, with trusted employees from the museum; three fakes are distributed and one real stone.  None of the employees know which they are carrying, and Marie-Laure's father has one in his possession.  They flee Paris and end up with Etienne, Marie-Laure's reclusive great uncle in Saint Malo.

The parallel storyline belongs to Werner Phennig, a snow haired orphan who has an uncanny knack for constructing and repairing radios.  Word of his amazing skills reaches a german officer who is in need of a repairman for his expensive radio.  When Werner fixes what no other person was able to fix, the german officer recommends that Werner should apply to a Nazi training school for young boys.  Werner, who fears succumbing to the fate that his dad suffered - being crushed while mining, accepts the offer and is transported into a "kill or be killed" world where logic disappears, friendships are trumped by violence, and being special or different are looked upon as weaknesses.  Dr. Hauptman who mentors Werner during his time at the school tells the students, "Life if chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of a species.  Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff."  The whiter the hair, the bluer the eyes, the faster you can run, the crueler you can be earn higher marks than compassion and artistry.  Werner soon learns that hardening his heart is his best defense.

As the book progresses and the war intensifies the lives of these two characters criss cross and meld together the past innocence of Werner's youth when he and his sister Jutta would listen to the radio and hear a professor's voice who talked about light, "The brain is locked in total darkness . . . And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement.  So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?" and the evils that overshadow wartime for both soldiers and civilians.  Connected by radios and terror, violence and survival, Werner and Marie-Laure meet and in a way save each other.

The title, "All The Light We Cannot See" takes on so many meanings throughout this book - from the radio broadcasts, to Marie-Laure's blindness, to being trapped in an attic or in a basement buried in the rubble from the collapsed Hotel of Bees, but the real lightness in this book was the airy way in which Doerr led the reader through his intensely lyrical style.  Each short chapter reads like it's own vignette, but never feels choppy in the scope of the sweeping novel.  Doerr proves that he is a master of storytelling, and a craftsman of words.  I literally at times got a bit teary eyed with how beautiful the writing was in this book.

If it's been awhile since you've lost yourself in a fiction masterpiece, it's time to pick up "All The Light We Cannot See."

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