All The Light We Cannot See

‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ said a smiling participant at last Saturday’s Write for Growth. ‘It’s that book you recommended. I stayed up half the night reading it. I was tired out the next day.’

She was referring to Anthony Doerr’s captivating novel ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’ It’s my favourite of the novels I’ve read this year, and I’ve been recommending it enthusiastically. Someone described it to me as ‘luminous,’ with a quiet light that permeates its strong story-line and vivid sensory detail.

Though the novel’s main action spans the Second World War, it takes us back to 1934, when its two protagonists are young children: Marie-Laure, the Parisian locksmith’s daughter who is losing her sight, and snow-haired Werner, an orphanage boy in a German mining town.

Young Werner discovers an early love of radio, not only in an appetite for learning from broadcasts, but also in his aptitude for mastering its technology. This will dictate his destiny as war looms. Doerr prefaces his opening chapter by quoting Joseph Goebbels: ‘ It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.’ But in the novel, the unseen power of radio waves is not confined to the service of the Nazis. It links various worlds otherwise disconnected.

Newly-blind Marie-Laure relies on her other senses to discover and navigate her environment. We ‘see’ her surroundings attentively evoked in ways beyond the visual, as she learns that ‘ to really touch something… is to love it.’ She handles a murex shell like ‘a forest of spikes and caves and textures; it’s a kingdom.’ Later, she savours an especially welcome omelette, with eggs that taste ‘like clouds. Like spun gold,’ and tinned peaches ‘ like wedges of wet sunlight.’

When the Nazis occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo, the fortress town on the Brittany coast, and home of her great-uncle Étienne. Here, she listens as the sea ‘sucks and boom and splashes and rumbles.’ For her the ‘labyrinth of Saint-Malo has opened on to a portal of sound larger than anything she has ever experienced.’

The novel pulses with a sense of portals to a greater universe. Across Europe’s war-clouded skies, the birds still sing, even if it is only Werner’s bunk-mate that pays attention to them. A radio broadcast tells young Werner how coal started out as ‘a fern, a reed that lived one million years ago.. or maybe one hundred million?’ on its transformative journey to the piece now glowing in the stove. In effect, the distant light, ‘sunlight one hundred million years old – is heating your home tonight.’

Within this vaster world, the all-too-current realities of wartime Europe constrict. A series of limited spaces, containing or confining, recur: boxes, rooms and institutions, or buildings only escapable in the imagination – and the submarine Nautilus in Marie-Laure’s cherished book, Jules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ Characters face circumstances where they have limited control. ‘Your problem, Werner,’ says one character, ‘is that you still believe you own your life.’

Such constraint challenges creativity and hones resilience. The novel warms us with how human beings can rise to the occasion: The locksmith constructs models of surrounding streets to teach Marie-Laure to find her bearings outdoors; she uses this knowledge to venture out alone. There is some creative resistance to the German Occupation.

Whatever the externals, characters still have choices – about friendship or hostility; loyalty or betrayal – and they do not all consistently make good ones. We see, too, how reducing issues to numbers can detach us from the human impact of our decisions.

Like the sea round Saint-Malo, the book’s short chapters form a succession of waves in unhurried but compelling movement. The tides of time shift deftly back and forth over years.

And embedded at the heart of this jewel of a book is the Sea of Flame – a precious and beautiful diamond: multi-faceted catalyst of action, solid in the hand but with its own accrued myths that elude human grasp.

I will say no more about how the various elements I’ve mentioned interweave as the story unfolds. I hope you may read and enjoy ‘All the Light We Cannot See’  yourself, perhaps far into the night. In the words of a radio voice in this luminous novel:

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

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    Creative Connections combines my commitment to personal development through face-to-face work with groups or individuals, and the impact of the written word. As a writer I am always looking to see things from a new angle...

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