"At dusk they pour from the sky."
In less than 100 words—86 to be precise—Anthony Doerr sets the pace for his World War II novel in a single-paged chapter. Sentences that resonate in the readers' minds with a sharp, staccato beat, couplings of adjectives and nouns that create vivid imagery, and an omnipresent, looming threat of danger are all qualities of Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.
A few (characteristically) short chapters later, we are introduced to the novel's two main characters.
Enter Marie-Laure LeBlanc: French, six-years old, blind, and undoubtedly obsessed with marine creatures of all forms. She leads a quaint existence with her devoted father in a small Parisian apartment near the Natural History Museum where her father works as a locksmith. As the novel progresses, Marie-Laure, now twelve, escapes Paris with her father as Nazi Germany encroaches upon the country's borders. The duo reaches St. Malo, a coastal French town, where the pair reunite with Etienne, Marie-Laure's great-uncle; however, even in this refuge, they are far from safety. Her father's disappearance, French Resistance activities, and a cursed gemstone weigh heavily upon Marie-Laure's life.
Welcome Werner Pfennig: German, seven-years-old, orphan, and painfully curious with the way the world operates. Werner lives in Zollverein, a bleak coal mining town, along with his younger sister, Jutta. At age 15, Werner is expected to enter the same coal mines that killed his father; yet, he is extremely gifted in the realms of mathematics and engineering. Instead of working in the mines, Werner is sent to a national school where the boys are versed in a suffocating amount of Nazi propaganda. Werner's engineering talents shine through the drab uniformity, and later, he becomes a lucrative piece of the German army. Committing horrible crimes along the way, Werner's own moral compass is tested, and he begins to doubt his great nation's motives which may cost him his life.
All the Light We Cannot See is teeming with glowing elements. For one, Doerr's characters are rich in personality; they are believable, lovable individuals with personal quirks and passions that make them realistic. This common empathic thread allows readers to connect with them. Consequently, each heart-wrenching obstacle the characters face elicits raw, intense emotion. My copy of All the Light We Cannot See, for instance, contains a plethora of dried tear splotches on the pages that depict Marie-Laure's abandoned book in the hall of the Natural History Museum as her and her father rush to escape the ensuing German invasion. Moments like Marie-Laure's discarded book are augmented by Doerr's ability to create delectable descriptions that evoke emotion and striking imagery.
In addition to Doerr's lyrical, descriptive language, sharp syntax is prevalent within his prose. Throughout the novel, Doerr uses short sentences to create a quick-paced novel that reads more like a thriller than a historical fiction. His sentences leave a frenetic impression--the same freneticism associated with World War II. True to form, from diction to syntax, Doerr maintains his literary efficiency by aiming, shooting, and delivering a perfect scene that creates a photographic snapshot for his readers.
Doerr should also receive kudos for tackling a war fiction in a way that deviates from the standard. His work embraces a different point-of-view while maintaining the key sentiments that should be included in a description of war. Furthermore, Doerr employs an abundance of symbols and motifs to distinguish his story from other period pieces. All the Light We Cannot See is embellished with these jewels; things like sight, whelks (a type of mollusk), and radio transmission waves represent overarching themes like intuitiveness, tenacity, and interconnectedness. Of the many symbols and motifs in the novel, the most powerful image is the radio transmission wave. The waves are the threads that sew Marie-Laure and Werner's story together, and more importantly, a radio broadcast is the catalyst that prompts Werner to save Marie-Laure in a dire moment. Here, technology truly becomes their saving grace: an invisible light in a time of perpetual darkness.
Even with the story's luminescent points, gloomy moments are still apparent. The first item on a relatively short "cons" list is that, although the characters are well-developed, some fall short as the novel progresses. More specifically, Werner falls into the tired "Nazi German soldier" trope. He transitions into the stock character who is conflicted with his moral responsibility as a human and that as a soldier. Werner's unique inquisitive personality is lost, and when moments of pre-war Werner attempt to shine through, it appears forced. Doerr's effort is remarkably similar to asking a dog to walk on its hind legs: it can be done, but not very well.
Another less palatable quality of Doerr's work is the sheer amount of cultural faux-pas's that persist throughout the entirety of the novel. Some of the characters' phrases and thoughts do not match their respective cultural linguistics of the era--though, I can only critique the French characters due to my four years of high school French classes. When 63-year-old Etienne utters "fuck this place," I cannot help but first imagine my French teacher's horror, then process my own shock and sum up my disbelief with a single word: really? Americanism is one of the novel's recurring (and most glaring) mistakes, and it could have been corrected with more careful research on Doerr's part.
While All the Light We Cannot See contains some faults, these faults are not strong enough to eclipse the novel's general light. Doerr succeeds in creating a brisk (yet eloquent) thriller by setting charming characters and a complex storyline against a backdrop of political turbulence. Thanks to Doerr's craftsmanship, Marie-Laure and Werner's story will continue to transmit shockwaves across generations and hopefully inspire goodness and humanity in times of abiding darkness.