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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

By sheer coincidence, I finished Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See just one day before it won the Pulitzer Prize, which was yesterday. It has been a top bestseller and received almost universal reviews. So let me be the outlier and say that while I liked it, I didn't love it.

"It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled." This appears late in the novel, and is, in my opinion, a pretty obvious statement. World War II has been the subject matter of who knows how many novels and is still going strong, even seventy years later.

This book mostly alternates chapters (short ones, that would make James Patterson proud) between two characters. Marie-Laure is a blind girl. She lives in Paris with her father, who is the keeper of the keys at the Museum of Natural History. When the occupation arrives, they decamp to the seaside town of St. Malo, which will later be a site of vicious fighting after the Allies land in Normandy.

On the German side we follow Werner Pfennig, who is born in a coal-mining town and would be doomed to work there but for his genius at engineering. He is noticed after fixing a radio in seconds and sent to a Hitler Youth academy. He is young and wet behind the ears, but manages to survive it, unlike his thoughtful friend Frederick, who loves the paintings of John James Audubon and is viciously beaten by his classmates.

A third character joins later on, a Major Von Rumpel, one of those Nazis who stole art from all over Europe. He is searching for a valuable diamond called the Sea of Flames, which was last in the Museum of Natural History. It seems the Marie-Laure's father may have hidden it. But where?

The diamond bit, to use cinematic language, is a class McGuffin, the Hitchcock term that meant an item that the characters are interested in but has little to do with the theme of the film. Here, the diamond seems to be completely unnecessary, just a device to make some suspense at the end. I'll admit the suspense is gripping, as Von Rumpel closes in on Marie-Laure, hiding in her great-uncle's house, but there's just a hint of pulpiness in it.

What's more interesting is the characterization of Marie-Laure and Werner, on opposite sides, but meant to meet (of course they do--it's not a spoiler if you've ever read a book). We can understand, through Werner, that a great many of the young men who died for Germany had no idea what they were fighting for--a vague notion of supremacy, for orphans like Werner, who barely had enough to eat. "Their salutes are comical; their outfits verge on ridiculous. But Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes: not so long ago they were feral toddlers skulking in their cots and crying for their mothers. Now they've become adolescent thugs with split knuckles and postcards of the fuhrer folded into their shirt pockets."

As for Marie-Laure, she's a bit more idealized. She has learned her away around both places she's lived by models of the town made by her father, and of course, those models will mean a great deal. She's brave and resolute, participating with the resistance by passing loaves of bread with messages in them. She's also a devout reader of Braille--the book she reads over and over again is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "If only life were like a Jules Verne novel, thinks Marie-Laure, and you could page ahead when you most needed to, and learn what would happen."

The books ends with two epilogues, set in 1974 and 2014. I was kind of dismayed to see that, but it turns out that Doerr holds back the sentimentality. He does not give in to certain Hollywood cliches about the inevitable meeting between Werner and Marie-Laure; it is touching and satisfying but not a catharsis.

The book, while being a page-turner, is quite poetic. There are some lovely descriptions of just simple moments, some lovely: "Those last nights in Paris, walking home with her father at midnight, the huge book clasped against her chest, Marie-Laure thinks she can sense a shiver beneath the air, in the pauses between the chirring of the insects, like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set on it. Some ugly: "Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets."

So if I don't think All the Light We Cannot See is the best novel of the year, I do recommend it, especially for those who read all they can get their hands on about World War II.

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