all the light we cannot see

all the light we cannot see

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Okay, I'm going to go ahead and boast, here, about my recent talent in choosing some very good books. For about the last year or so, I've been assigning so many 5 stars to books on goodreads, when previously I'd been stingy about five-star ratings, that I wondered whether I've allowed my standards to slide or whether I've had a lucky reading streak.

Anthony Doerr's new novel All the Light We Cannot See confirms that perhaps I've just been making some excellent reading decisions. This book is intensely emotional and delicately but powerfully structured.

The story is told primary from the viewpoints of Marie Laure, a French girl who goes blind at the age of six, and Werner, a German boy conscripted into Hitler's army because of his talent with radios (and his snow-white hair doesn't hurt), and their lives during World War II. I'm generally disinterested in books involving war, though I have loved The Book Thief and The City of Thieves. I was attracted to this novel because I've always been interested in Doerr's books (though previously failed to read one until now), and the synopsis and, yes, the pretty cover (I'm swayed by beautiful covers all of the time).

And though the cover may be pretty, and the story incredible and the words gorgeous, beware that they are also frequently dark and difficult. Although this may, in a sketchy sort of way, be referred to as a boy-meets-girl sort of story, it mostly is not and it is most definitely not cloying. It is not a black-and-white, Germans-bad-everyone-else-good, sort of World War II novel. Even the primary bad guy in this story has the briefest moments of humanity for which one can feel empathy (though they are brief, for certain).

Some of the reasons I adored this story:

Every morning he ties his shoes, packs newspaper inside his coat as insulation against the cold, and begins interrogating the world. 

...across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid. 

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth's crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the early tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks. 

Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand - what sounds like three hands, four - the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed. 

We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. the lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother's birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us. 

He thinks of the old broken miners he'd seen in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it's a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop. 

All the Light We Cannot See is bittersweet and frustrating, glowing and dark. Marie-Laure may be blind and often scared but she is not strictly vulnerable, or a victim. Werner may be working for Hitler but he is also a boy and vulnerable. One of my favourite novels of the year, so far, and just lovely.