I read this sometime in January and I thought I would save my review for our current reading theme as I was taken by the female characters in this story.
All The Light We Cannot See
Written by: Anthony Doerr
Published by: Scribner, 2014. ISBN: 1476746583 (ISBN13: 9781476746586)
Book Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2015), Audie Award for Fiction (2015), ALA Alex Award (2015), Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction (Runner-Up) (2015), Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2015), National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2014), Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction (2014). Book given to me as a gift by my husband.
It took me awhile to get into the novel. The setting, the place, the landscape – they are all very distinct characters in the novel, and the author has taken great pains to describe everything in exquisite, loving detail; hence, the meandering, slow-moving pace at the start, as the story builds up gradually into its denouement.
I was especially moved by Marie-Laure’s character. There is an illumination to blindness that I have not read before. My little grey notebook is filled to the brim with the quotes that I copied down – mostly in Marie-Laure’s voice:
Here is one of my favourite quotes on what it feels like to lose one’s sight:
The children she meets brim with questions: Does it hurt? Do you shut your eyes to sleep? How do you know what time it is?
It doesn’t hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture. She walks a circle around the Grand Gallery, navigating between squeaking floorboards; she hears feet tramp up and down museum staircases, a toddler squeal, the groan of a weary grandmother lowering herself onto a bench.
Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light. (pp. 44-45)
There is quiet beauty in the writing that invites the heart to slow down a little, entices the reader to breathe more slowly, as the words slowly unfurl their magic.
At the same time that I was writing this review, this link showed up on my Facebook thread regarding Professor Sheri Wells-Jensen’s response to Marie-Laure’s blindness in the book. It reminded me that I read the entire novel from a very romanticized, normative point of view. Much of what Professor Wells-Jensen wrote in her detailed critique of the novel, I somehow took as a matter of course, and did not find to be particularly offensive, until she pointed them out.
Our book club discussed the critique and one of the issues raised was that Prof Wells-Jensen may have been evaluating the novel using a modern point of view or a largely-different context – that there may be cultural and historical nuances that may explain why the author wrote the narrative the way he did. Regardless, it was an insight that we all appreciated, reminding us of the insider-outsider argument in analyzing any written material, whose voices are silenced, and whose experiences of reality may be misrepresented as the reader takes things for granted from a normative vantage point.
While I have no problem with the alternating points of view, I find the shifting timelines, though, to be a bit cumbersome, taking me out of the narrative every now and again – as I have to check periodically – when is this happening? What is going on here now?
My book club at the NIE discussed the novel and we talked about the different faces of courage, what it takes to remain true to one’s self despite state oppression and societal expectations, and what it means to do the right thing when the very fabric of reality and morality has been pulled from under one’s feet, leaving one standing in shifting, sinking sands. This is also one of the reasons why we were taken by another female character, Jutta, as she remained unyielding to what was going on, the stars in her eyes refusing to die down despite the darkness all around her. Her relationship with her brother Werner, however strained it eventually became, also had such emotional depth and intensity – which may probably be reflected in Werner’s letter to Jutta here (I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app):
Imagine a teenage soldier staring at the silvery threads of dawn, his mind on his sister, his little inventions and gadgets giving the war a sense of direction, a specific target, be it in a red dress or in a tower of a home facing the sea.
I also shared with my book club how I did not like the last part of the novel – I felt such rude authorial intrusion that made me feel that the author was punishing its reader for the love story that he allowed in its pages – that the singular moment of connectedness and humanity would have to be wiped out by needless violence and a senseless death. Naturally, it can be argued that this is what war does, exactly. But still, I felt it was the hand of the author imposing its gratuitous glee in snuffing out the light in this one and the other, plus one more for good measure. There is heaviness of heart here, the soul flushed in pain; but that is also its beauty, brimming with the glow of “all the light we cannot see” but we know must exist somewhere.