Tuesday, July 8, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See

I read a lot of books.  It has always been a passion in my life.  Many of those books are very good; some are great.  But every once in a while a book will come my way and nothing less than the adjective "magnificent" will do it justice.

How I came to hear about All The Light We Cannot See I really can't remember.  I wasn't familiar with its author, Anthony Doerr.  I knew nothing of the impressive number of prizes he has won for his writing.  Someone must have made a suggestion, given a hint, that settled in my subconscious.  I don't know who to thank; but, if it was you I owe you big time.  It was somewhere around page 80 when I knew, really knew, I held something very special in my hands.

I bought the book in May the day after its publication date and from what I had heard from my now forgotten source, I had every expectation that it would be "good."  It certainly started out that way:


At dusk they pour from the sky.  They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say.  Depart immediately into open country.
The tide climbs.  The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous.  On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars. 
And with that beginning Doerr slowly peels back his beautifully conceived story petal by petal.  It is written in what an English major would call "non-linear narrative" in that the story unfolds not in chronological order but is deconstructed and then put back together.  In the hands of an artist with the heart of a poet and the technical skill of an rocket scientist, it works.  It works brilliantly.

Doerr opens his narrative on August 7, 1944, when the Germans launch their last big offensive in Normandy, but he weaves in and out of the past.  At the center of the story is Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, where he works.  She has been blind since the age of six.  When the Nazis occupy Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure's reclusive uncle Etienne:
Water surrounds the city on four sides.  Its link to the rest of France is tenuous:  a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand.  We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo.  Bretons next.  French if there's anything left over.
Three hundred miles northeast of Paris, Werner Pfenning is growing up in Essen, Germany.  He is small for his age and the milky-whiteness of his hair "stops people in their tracks."  Werner is also a genius when it comes to radios...magnetism, electricity, circuits, induction, conduction.  These are his special gifts and they are very valuable to The Third Reich.  Just the sort of boy they can use.  Or is he?

Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel was a gemologist before the war; his particular gift was for diamonds.  There are rumors that the fuhrer has begun to prepare a wish list of precious objects to be gathered from all over Europe and Russia.

The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes.  A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered around the poles, and diamonds for world capitals....Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask.
But von Rumpel has only one true obsession:  The Sea of Flames.

The earth shifts, shrugs, stretches.  One year, one day, one hour, a great upflow of magma gathers a seam of crystals and drives it toward the surface, mile after burning mile; it cools inside a huge, smoking xenolith of kimberlite, and there it waits.  Century after century.  Rain, wind, cubic miles of ice.  Bedrock becomes boulders, boulders become stones; the ice retreats, a lake forms, and galaxies of freshwater clams flap their million shells at the sun and close and die and the lake seeps away....Until another year, another day, another hour, when a storm claws one particular stone out of a canyon and sends it into a clattering flow of alluvium, where eventually it finds, one evening, the attention of a prince who knows what he is looking for.

Marie-Laure, Werner, von Rumpel, the Sea of Flames:  slowly and steadily Doerr weaves them together in an expertly crafted and stunningly beautiful, seamless cloth.  Like a literary version of Ravel's symphony Bolero, it is gently relentless in its tempo.

I predict this for you:  it is a novel that you will find impossible to forget;  it will not leave you.  As one review said, "[I]t makes you think forever differently about the big things - love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facets of the human heart."


  1. I've been hearing buzz about this book but nothing specific so thanks for your wonderful post about it! It does sound very good.

    1. Stefanie, it is a very special book. I hope it finds its way onto your TBR pile. Well worth it if it does.

  2. If nothing else, that book has to have the most arresting title of any novel in the last ten years.

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Shelly, Also, isn't the cover art beautiful? But it's what is between the covers that is most arresting of all. I recommend it highly.