All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Paperback review by Harriet

Marie-Laure sits on her bed with the window open and travels her hands over her father’s model of the city. Her fingers pass the ship-builders’ sheds on the rue de Chartres, pass Madame Ruelle’s bakery on the rue Robert Surcouf. In her imagination she hears the bakers sliding about on the flour-slick floor, moving in the way she imagines ice-skaters must move, baking loaves in the same four-hundred-year-old oven that Monsieur Ruelle’s grandfather used. Her fingers pass the cathedral steps – here an old man clips roses in a garden; here, beside the library, crazy Hubert Bazin murmurs to himself as he peers with his one eye into an empty wine bottle.

Anthony Doerr has done well with this novel – last year he won the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s recently been announced that he’s a joint winner of the Carnegie Medal for Fiction.  I think the judges were right. This is a magnificent book, which manages to be both breathtaking in its scope and wonderfully delicate in its depiction of the hearts and minds, the feelings and the perceptions of its two young protagonists.

Moving around between 1934 and 1974, with an epilogue in 2014, this is the story of French Marie-Laure and German Werner. Their two lives run in parallel, in alternating chapters. Will they ever meet? We have to assume so, as in the first part of the book, set in 1944, they are both in St Malo, on the north coast of Brittany in France, but how and when remains a mystery for a long time.

Marie-Laure’s life begins in Paris, where she lives with her widowed father, who works as a locksmith at an important museum. Blind since six, she goes with him to the musem every day, learns through touch about rocks, minerals and shellfish, and reads the Braille books he buys for her. He also constructs a miniature model of their neighbourhood, which she has to learn to navigate, and eventually she will be able to make her way through the Paris streets without help.

Werner’s life is as different as it could possibly be. With his beloved younger sister Jutte, he lives in an orphanage in a mining town outside Essen in Germany. It is a kindly place, despite being deprived of any luxuries or even comforts, and the woman who runs it, Elena, is from Alsace, so the children get used to hearing French spoken. One day they find a broken, discarded radio, and Werner gets it working, enabling them to listen to mysterious broadcasts in French in which education and philosophy mingle with glorious classical music.

The war comes. Werner, who has become expert at fixing radios, is whisked away to an elite training school where his hair is tested for blondness, his body measurements taken, and his fitness assessed. Passed as suitably Aryan, he joins other fourteen–year-olds in a punishingly brutal regime, and is subjected to propoganda that he initally accepts. In Paris, meanwhile, things becomes increasingly frightening, and Marie-Laure and her father make their way, with great difficulty, to St Malo, where her father’s uncle has a large house, and where she learns again to navigate through another of her father’s models. Yes, the Germans are there, but life is marginally more tolerable..

Writing about it like this makes it sound rather pedestrian, but it really isn’t. The main action of the novel takes place during the war, and though I’ve read any number of novels set during this period, I don’t remember any bringing it closer to home than this one. I’ve seen it compared to Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which indeed would be an interesting companion piece for it, but one thing that makes it stand out is the way it depicts the German side of things. One review I read actually criticised it for being sympathetic to Germany, which it absolutely is not – or rather, it is certainly not sympathetic to the Nazi regime and its perpetrators.  But yes, it shows some ordinary German soldiers who are as confused and stressed by what they are called upon to do as any human being in the same circumstances would be. They are mostly young boys, brainwashed by propoganda, exhausted and traumatised by their experiences in the field, and it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for them. And at the same time, of course, we are witness to the increasingly terrible life of the inhabitants of St Malo – the privations, the agonising disappearances, the bravery and the fear of discovery.

The twists and turns and subtleties of this complex story, all 530 pages of, make it a real page turner. But that’s not all. The writing and imagery are superb, sensuous and evocative. Whether he’s capturing Marie-Laure’s appreciation of her sightless world, quite as rich, probably richer, than that of a sighted person, or encompassing the great sweep of armies on the move, every word is a pleasure to read. This is a novel of great humanity. It’s about survival and endurance, about love and fate and history. Bad things happen, tragedies occur, and yet it’s ultimately suprisingly uplifting and hopeful. Read it!

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and lives near St Malo, which is happily a much nicer place than it was in 1944.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate: London, 2015).  9780008138301, 532pp., paperback.

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