While inside prison, I spent 5 days reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning book which I feel is the best book I have ever read in my life. I felt so strongly about the novel that it inspired me to spend 1 whole day (immediately after finishing the book) to write a book review. To retain fidelity to my original handwritten 2-page draft that was composed within the span of a day, I am reproducing the critique below albeit in a typewritten format and chose not to do any edits to my original draft. Rest assured only the format is different, no words have been added or removed or changed from my original handwritten draft, the words are 100% exactly the same. This will more accurately reflect my lack of a dictionary and internet to google whether what I spelled or quoted/made reference to is correct or not and also the time constraint and paper constraint I faced while writing it (which will explain why my concluding paragraph is cramped with themes that I can explore further should I choose to, if given more paper to write on while inside prison).
A Literary Critique/Review of ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr
“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.” This is the kind of wide doe-eyed innocence and wishful thinking exemplified by Marie-Laure, one of the two central characters in this novel. However, in this case, if we were to skip ahead to the end, we would miss the mesmerizing epic grand scale on which events unfurl.
“Sublimity is the instant when one thing is about to become something else.” Anthony Doerr’s second novel – a long ten years in the making – is the medium through which the author has crossed the Rubicon, stepped off the precipice, taken a leap of faith via his unconventional writing and been exalted and elevated to the pantheon of literary greats much like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Debussy’s Clair de Lune, all of which feature heavily in this tale. This work could very well be Doerr’s magnum opus and is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, hence worthy of the decade-long wait. Doerr’s epic novel has earned him a well-deserved place among his aforementioned greatly revered heroes.
The story is set in Germany and France’s Saint-Malo and Paris. It is however not set in the glamorous belle époque period with its familiar grand old world charm but instead the stage here is World War II, itself a character constantly in the background; never far from our protagonists’ minds.
Like the intricately crafted little model house of Number 4 rue Vauborel featured in the story, Doerr’s novel intricately weaves the various timelines between the two main protagonists: Marie-Laure, a blind young girl and Werner, a smart White-haired boy. Doerr not only deftly switches perspectives between the two protagonists, he also successfully juggles two on-going timelines, switching back and forth between the past and future until the two timelines coalesce. This is a similar technique employed by British author Jeffrey Archer in his ‘The Fourth Estate’ and to a lesser degree in ‘Kane and Abel’ but Doerr here has outdone his contemporary with more literary finesse displayed. Doerr’s prose is also lovely and mesmerizing with its rhythmic pace and never feels superfluous for a second. He writes beautiful descriptions of the scenes and evokes lively imageries. Other less skilled peers of his such as author Dan Brown often launch into long descriptions of sceneries; diatribes that are excessive to the point of making the writing seem like a travelogue. Doerr sidesteps this skilfully as all the scene descriptions are essential from the perspective of his sightless girl whose mood changes the colour of the depicted scenes; the world is gray and devoid of colours when she is depressed and only recolourises when her mood lifts. Doerr smartly maintains suspense readers’ interest and curiosity by keeping the chapters short – especially in the opening pages of the book in the first section curiously-named ‘Zero’ – before switching the narrative and perspective to elsewhere. This results in mini-cliffhangers that force the readers to keep the pages turning.
Like the old adage made famous by the line in the beloved French classic, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince): “The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart”, Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has an over-arching theme of goodness in people that permeates throughout the story. This intrinsic human quality is present in many of the novel’s characters that have performed selfless acts that not only generates no benefits to themselves but may invite trouble to their doorsteps. Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel LeBlanc made miniature models of the city to help his daughter find her way; Etienne (Marie-Laure’s great-uncle) takes the pair of father and daughter in despite having no obligations to; Madame Manec engaging in espionage/spying reconnaissance activities, thereby putting herself in unneeded danger; and finally Werner who eventually takes the righteous path of saving the lives of Marie-Laure and her great-uncle, saving the former several times even. “You must never stop believing” and “… how to see her is to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts”; these are words spoken by Madame Manec and Dr. Geffard to Marie-Laure, underpinning the importance of believing in goodness and its perpetuality.
Much like an experienced auteur, Doerr never once runs into creative sclerosis and the characters in the story – every single one of them – pops out of the pages and are fully fleshed out with their own moral dilemma and unique personality. From the gemologist-turned-sergeant major cum primary antagonist von Rumpel who is obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames but still depicted as loving his daughters and also being morally upright by keeping his promise to Marie-Laure to leave after she answered his question; to Frederick who stood his ground and refused to partake in abusive bullying tactics despite the prospects of facing punishment himself; and to Marie-Laure’s papa who presents an optimistic and hopeful front to his daughter despite feeling despair within himself. These are not one-dimensional characters and there are no traces of stereotypes or tropes. Do not be fooled by the naivety of ingénue Marie-Laure, she displays admirable beyond-her-years grit and tenacity. Volkheimer though a giant, is friendly towards Werner. He even goes through a redemption when he asks Werner to take his rifle and presumably save Marie-Laure. Redemption is also another theme in this novel. Werner undergoes a similar redemption arc – after indirectly causing the death of the red-haired little girl – by sparing and also saving the lives of Marie-Laure and Etienne through both hiding of knowledge and taking direct action.
Even inanimate objects like the Sea of Flames at the central of the story are infused with life and vigour through Doerr’s prose. It is no mere MacGuffin inserted into the narrative out of frivolity. The Sea of Flames is akin to the heart of the story both figuratively and literally as it plays an essential role around which the plot’s events revolve around and is a cut multi-faceted diamond with a flame within it. Other items like the numerous shells that pique and held Marie-Laure’s interest, highlights Doerr’s knowledge in mollusks. The shells have spirals which are like mazes. This leads to the next theme which is the inter-connectedness of people like in a maze or universal network. Werner and Marie-Laure are first connected through vast space and distance by radio waves through the radio broadcasts of Marie-Laure’s grandfather, Henri who is known to Werner and his younger sister Jutta as ‘The Professor’. When Marie-Laure and Werner first talked, Werner mentioned Clair de Lune to her to bridge an immediate closeness to her. The invisible electromagnetic waves form a network connecting people and souls all across the universe. The inter-connectivity of people also sets off chain reactions from Marie-Laure’s actions of bravery leading to a reaction in Werner changing and being brave by taking charge of his actions. This is evidenced by the conversation between them: ‘“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery, I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” and Werner replies “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.”’ The above exchange also highlights two other important themes: the inevitability of life and extraordinariness in ordinary acts. Light is also an important character by itself, personified by its ubiquitous presence throughout the novel. It is described in vivid details and appears as various forms including electromagnetic waves (EM waves) and radio waves which as aforementioned plays an essential role of connectivity especially between the two main protagonists. The book’s title ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ refers directly to the concept that light is actually invisible. Visible light is colour but “the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, … mathematically, all of light is invisible” the novel explains so, since the visible part of EM waves or light is insignificant and a small portion minority compared to the larger portion majority of invisible EM waves or light. The persistence of souls is also explored. EM waves abound all around us in our daily lives, sunlight filtering through trees, in the air, through radio, through a field light, even in different less recognisable forms such as in the form of coal as explained by the novel that a plant captures light and then decays into the soil and buried under for millions of years before eventually forming into a coal. Souls from the departed can similarly transform and be found in this ‘light we cannot see’ and travel and persist all around us for all of eternity. Hence the novel’s title also alludes to the souls of our departed loved ones existing around us. The owl appearing to Frederick near the novel’s end and a simple wind could all be a soul taking different forms; the former owl could be Werner visiting his friend after he died. The radio and mollusks (shells) are all complex systems, intricate networks and are small pieces in a universe; mazes unto themselves. From souls, religious themes are also explored such as when Marie-Laure asks whether blind people will see the face of God. The Sea of Flames is the physical manifestation and embodiment of the theme and question of science versus faith; logic versus superstition. Does it really have powers to protect its owner? Is it really cursed and causing bad things to befall on people around its owner? Doerr leaves these questions unanswered and is certain in the diamond’s ambiguity. After all, Marie-Laure who was its owner did not die and got out of life-threatening seemingly impossible situations while others around her died such as her beloved father, Madame Manec and even Werner when he died, he did not have the tear-shaped stone with him.
The concept and theme of purity is also explored. Doerr postulates that purity of any form – be it racial purity or political purity – can never be achieved. Since the moment we are born, we are under constant corruption from the environment and world around us, including the very air that enters our bodies and hence the body can never be pure; we can never be completely rid of impurities. Doerr likens this to how the “entropy of a closed system never decreases.” Permanent order can never be formed, there will always be disorder and chaos; impurities are natural.
Doerr’s words transform the intangible into tangible such as when Marie-Laure’s reading of Braille becomes blurred when she is feeling distracted. In reality words in Braille books can’t possibly distort or blur. Her distraction caused by anxiety leads to the blurring in her reading. Doerr’s mastery of the language also shines through such as when he uses an oxymoron ‘beautiful ugly’ or ‘belle laide’ when Werner describes Marie-Laure’s eyes or when he uses vivid metaphors like “… it’s like reaching into a sack full of cotton and finding a razor blade inside” when Werner hears talking on the radio after months of static and “It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished.” Doerr raises thought-provoking notions through questions such as “The brain is locked in total darkness, … inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with colour and light. So how, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” He also pays immaculate attention to details, a quality that shows through his prose. These are all displays of his proficiency as a master wordsmith. Doerr also references literary greats such as Jules Verne and ingeniously incorporates elements from his predecessor’s into his narrative. Professor Aronnax from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea works in the same National Museum of Natural History as Marie-Laure’s father; Captain Nemo’s experiences are in tandem parallel to those of the novel’s characters.
Human resilience, overcoming adversity and phobia such as Etienne’s agoraphobia and the trauma and devastation caused by war are all themes explored in Doerr’s novel. Even at the novel’s end, Doerr is unconventional by unexpectedly having the male protagonist, Werner be killed. Long after the last word is read, Doerr’s characters linger long in the reader’s mind. Every other book read after this novel pales in comparison as Doerr’s story continues to reverberate and also illuminate and shine a light of hope and optimism through our lives’ dark periods for eternal perpetuality like all the light we cannot see in the story.