Book Club Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

January 2015

blog by Cindy Bushey

Zion’s readers are a close-knit group; members never need to stand on ceremony or be wary of being frank. It does not matter if it is your first time with us to discuss a book or your fiftieth. We give our attention to whoever is holding forth and jump right in when we have something to contribute; all comments are welcome. So while a visitor might have been disconcerted, no member blinked an eye when the first comment of our discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was “I was annoyed!” It turns out many of us were.

As has been noted before, book jackets and blurbs can lead people to assume that a book’s plot is going to proceed in a certain way only to have the characters never fulfill that promise. All the Light We Cannot See is set in France and Germany during World War II with a blind, adolescent French girl and a young German teenage boy as the main characters. Many of our readers felt the novel would tell the story of their meeting and discovery of each other during war time and their eventual life together. Boy, were we wrong! The author told two separate stories, one of a young girl gradually going blind and how she adapted to her sightless world, the second of a young, orphaned German boy whose sighted world was filled with loss. Mr. Doerr employed the technique of having one short chapter showcase the girl and the subsequent, equally brief, chapter showcase the boy while jumping back and forth in time. This technique did not endear itself to our readers. No sooner did a reader become involved in Marie-Laure’s world than the gears shifted to Werner’s orphanage.

Yet their stories, once deciphered, were gripping. Mr. Doerr’s descriptive way with words allowed us to experience the dark curtain of Marie-Laure’s world which her eagerness to learn about nature pierced to let in the light of knowledge. In the same way, Werner’s curiosity about the natural world gave him a focus beyond his everyday circumstances, his need to protect his wise, younger sister, his horror of being forced into the coal mining pit like his father. As war loomed, it brought changes to their lives. Marie-Laure’s father was entrusted with protecting a precious diamond from the museum where he worked and journeyed with the girl to an uncle’s house. The uncle, a recluse suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress for decades, found that the girl brought him out of himself and let some light into his life. Werner’s self-taught knowledge of radios brought him to the notice of the Nazi apparatus in what, at first, looked like a way out of darkness but brought him only constant inner war between his conscience and his actions.

There was an unknown connection between the girl and boy as Marie-Laure’s great uncles had broadcast a show for children over the radio, and Werner had tuned in often on the radio he had managed to build. Think of the show as a precursor to Bill Nye, the Science Guy. It explored how and why things worked and stoked Werner’s imagination and intrigued Marie-Laure. The author authentically painted the perspective of agonized waiting in France for the Germans to come and the danger of owning a radio. He also painted the chilling perspective of the daily assaults on conscience and decency in the German army as Werner was trained to sniff out radio broadcasts and detect resistance cells. The horror of war was brought home all too well as was the fact that those horrors do not change from war to war, from World War II France to present day Syria. That said, Zion’s readers found too many stock characters (German general, resistance fighters) that the author could have better developed. He seemed to lose steam after the first half of the book, and our readers picked up quite a few historical inaccuracies along the way. The book’s characters had odd obsessions which did not make them any more attractive. Having made the point of the horrors of war, the author threw in additional harsh vignettes that did not seem necessary for story development. As another review said, this book (which was a New York Times pick of the top ten books of 2014) could have been great literature and/or great entertainment but never attained either height.

The two stories’ paths finally intersected as Werner rescued Marie-Laure and shepherded her to safety as the war came to an end. He was captured by the Allies and finally succumbed to what some readers thought was an accidental death and some felt was a soul-sick suicidal choice. But life goes on, and the author does another one of his jumps and moves forward decades to catch up with Marie-Laure and Werner’s sister. We are left with the mystery of the whereabouts of the diamond about which our readers held differing opinions. We are also left with the vibrant image of radio broadcasts flying through the airwaves above Europe and how crowded those air waves are now around the world with satellite, internet, and cell phone communications. How much light do these communications bring into darkened corners of the world? How powerful is the spoken word with technology to magnify it? How tangible are the people who have come before us and how accessible their legacy?

While some readers did not appreciate the author’s prose when it waxed poetic, and all felt it would have been beneficial to better understand the internal thought processes of main and supporting characters, we still agreed that it was an easy book to read. With its flaws, it still touched a chord with all Zion’s readers and received a unanimous one thumb up vote.