Last year, Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, fascinated readers and reviewers, and this year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel. The prize is $10,000 and is awarded “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
Funny thing: this novel is not about American life. It’s about a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy during World War II. Then again, it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us, which is presumably why the Pulitzer jury decided to award Mr. Doerr this prize even though the entire novel takes place in Europe, and all of the characters are European.
I had put off reading this story; I figured it was going to be a predictable love story about two teens set in wartime. I was wrong. Of course, there is the continuous threadline that pulls the reader along to find out if they do meet and/or fall in love and/or live happily ever after.
But All the Light We Cannot See is about so, so much more than that.
And it is by no means a fairy tale.
It’s about blindness, and how the goodness in us best prevails when we cannot see material value that gives birth to greed. It’s about children–children without mothers, in this case–but also about the many losses and risks and monstrous things children must endure which, as Amanda Vaill wrote in her Washington Post review, “they [the children] had nothing to do with.”
It’s about entropy, which Mr. Doerr defines as “the degree of randomness or disorder in a system.” It’s about secrets and fear and grief.
It’s about war, and the way it devours young soldiers, “great rows of them walking to the conveyor belt to climb on.” And about the prisoners, the rape victims, the ordinary people who lose everything. And it’s about the false rationalization of war technology: “…better, surely, than fighting in some stinking, frozen trench, full of lice, the way the old instructors at Schulpforta fought in the first war. This is cleaner, more mechanical, a war raged through the air, invisibly, and the front lines are anywhere. Isn’t there a kind of ravishing delight in the chase of it?”
And it’s about guilt and the (im)possibility of redemption. One of the two main characters is Werner, a German orphan boy who’s recruited into the German military because of his tremendous skills in math and technology. His sister Jutta doesn’t agree with his decision to go. She asks, “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” Throughout the book, Werner is haunted by her question, but Jutta–like many women and other citizens who don’t actually fight in war battles–must carry a heavy guilt for the atrocities that her brother and her country committed. Decades after the war ended, she is on her way to France and doesn’t want anyone to know her origin, worrying that maybe she even “smells German.”
As I read All the Light We Cannot See, I couldn’t help but think about where we are today.
Mass exodus from Paris ahead of the German occupation? Mass exodus from Syria today. Young soldiers being killed or permanently disabled back then? Young soldiers suffering the same fates in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous other places around the globe today. Radio technology as a cleaner, invisible tool of war? Drones.
All the senseless human experiences about which Mr. Doerr writes in this novel continue to plague our western civilization today as though we have learned nothing from the horrors that our parents and grandparents experienced in World War II. Werner rightfully wonders in the dead of night, “isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and the world sets in upon it.”
There are uplifting moments in the book; there are grounds for hope.
And some of the characters are especially compelling, especially the blind girl Marie-Laure, who is predictably sympathetic but also a smart cookie, her devoted locksmith father, the feisty housekeeper Madame Manec, and most of all eccentric Uncle Etienne. And the writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve read lately, which in itself is symbolically intriguing because the language brings light into what is otherwise a dark and desperate tale.
Some of my many favorite lines:
“Doubts: slipping in like eels.”
“…the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being; apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.”
“When death comes for Bernd, it might as well come for him also. Save a second trip.”
“The cadets show less respect to the new instructors who in turn have shorter tempers, and soon the school feels to Werner like a grenade with its pin pulled.”
“Car after car the prisoners come, a river of human beings pouring out of the night.”
“Werner feels he is gazing down into the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than an electron has.”
“Time is a slippery thing; lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”
Ms. Vaill writes that it is an unsentimental story, but she does not mean it is without emotion. In fact, my attachment to, and emotional concern for, the characters is what made this a page-turner for me. But overall this book is a commentary about the ongoing ills of our society, one that leaves me feeling downtrodden, makes me want to crawl up into my shell like the snails Marie-Laure so loved.
Various characters opine about the ugly state of our world, but the most poignant comment of all is a question by Frederick, who was grossly, and permanently, disabled by violent peers at the Nazi training school for prospective recruits. Thirty years after the war, he lives with his mother. He is the only significant character I recall who even has a mother in the story, which reminds me of so many Disney movies in which the characters are motherless. I can’t help but wonder what the significance of this motherlessness is as I ponder the horrors in All the Light You Cannot See, other than to firmly believe that no mother wishes war, or orphanhood, or blindness or disorder or the burden of horrible secrets or fear or grief or guilt or sorrow or disability upon her children, or upon any children for that matter, and there is great weight for me in the fact that, upon the receipt of a letter from his old friend Werner, Frederick asks this.
“What are we doing, Mutti?”
To which she can give no satisfactory reply.