Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See by Doerr

As I complete yet another book with a World War II setting, I can’t help but wonder how bare our literature shelves would be without the countless stories of heroism, bravery and sacrifice of those who lived at that time, both in our country and abroad.   Although most of the books I read are fiction, I am certain the stories are based on truths that have been passed down through the generations. I highly recommend All The light We Cannot See by Anothony Doerr if you want to be transported to a time and place in history through excellent descriptive writing and characters you wish you had known in real life.

Instead of following persecuted Jews to the horrors of Auschwitz, Doerr weaves together the stories of two unlikely heroes of the time--a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner.  Their paths collide in occupied France as they try to survive the devastations and horrors of World War II.

Marie-Laure’s father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where he is the master of a thousand locks.  When his daughter goes blind at the age of six, he teaches her self-reliance in many ways. For example,  he builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way from home to the Museum.  Their loving relationship will touch your heart and then break it when they are separated, shortly after her twelfth birthday, as the Nazi’s occupy Paris. Her birthday gift from her father that year was a Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne which becomes her most prized possession. When her father is taken away, Mari-Laure finds safety in the walled citadel of Saint-Malo where her reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  One of the most touching scenes in the book is the first time she experiences the rush of the sea on her bare feet.  And to add a touch of mystery, among the few possessions she was able to take with her just might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, critic Vollman says “Marie-Laure is an exquisitely realized creation….her self-reliant intelligence, nurtured by her father, allows her to carry on bravely…each time Madame Ruelle at the bakery sells her another ordinary loaf with a slip of coded numbers inside for her great-uncle to transmit on illegal radio, the girl calmly does her duty.”

We first meet the young Werner in a German orphanage with little sister, Jetta, who he is devoted to. They become enchanted by a crude radio they find when they discover a copper wire that allows them to tune into foreign broadcasts.  “After prayers and lights out, Jetta sneaks up to her brother’s dorm where they lie hip-to-hip, listening till midnight, til 1, till 2.”  

Werner, through his early fascination with the radio, becomes a child engineering prodigy at building and repairing these crucial new instruments. This talent earns him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, and allows him to escape his destiny of the coal mines which killed his father. However, he pays a dear price for his escape. Like Marie-Laure, he is  now separated from the one person he loves, sister, Jutte.  We follow Werner through the ravages of the war and when he is assigned to track the resistance movement, he makes his way eventually into Saint-Malo where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Ten years in the making, Doerr says,  “Writing the book was a huge puzzle. I felt like I was building a big model house. I had, I think 187 chapters and each one alternates in point of view or time.”   Don’t let the number of chapters scare you off.  The chapters are short and the narrative is easy to follow as we alternate from Marie-Laure to Werner.

Besides a mesmerizing tale, the writing itself is filled with exquisite physical details and stunning metaphors.  And because Marie-Laure is blind, we experience her life through all the other senses she must employ.  We smell, taste, touch and hear the world through her.

Like any story of World War there are villainous and evil characters, yet in All The Light We Cannot See, Doerr manages to illustrate through these two young characters, and against all odds, the ways people try to be good to one another. 

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