There is a shortcoming in Anthony Doerr’s beautiful novel, but the book’s abundant strengths are so profound and overarching that it feels wrong to issue even a mild complaint. This is, simply, an awe-inspiring book. Its imagery is lush, its descriptions precise and highly detailed. The pacing of the prose is lyrical and diverse, the story telling all but poetic. A lover of the language could turn to any page, without knowing anything about the plot and find enough pleasures to keep occupied for hours. On top of all this, the plot is complex and constantly in motion. One is anxious to keep reading to find out what will happen to the characters, who are thoroughly well drawn and layered, and every stage of the story is believable and consistent. In spite of all this, a veil of uncertainty seems draped over the whole enterprise. The description flows so easily and smoothly that one is more than happy to be carried along through the pages, but a certain concern about just where those pages are taking him is constant and inescapable, and never really disappears, even at the ending.
It is possible to consider this fundamental ambiguity the heart of Doerr’s purpose. In the end, he has told a touching story in a very Franzen-esque style that paints an absolutely vivid picture of certain people acting in a certain time and place, but he does so without commentary or reflection. “Here is a piece of life,” he seems to be saying. “People have problems. They grow up and interact with the inexplicable forces of the current events of their era. They die suddenly and unexpectedly. They disappear without explanation. They sometimes act heroically, sometimes with cowardice, sometimes, some of them, with great cruelty. So it goes.”
The plot primarily follows two young people, a blind French girl and a science-minded German boy, along the peripheries of World War II until their paths briefly cross as Allied forces level the seaside town of Saint Malo, France, on the march toward Germany in the late stages of the war. We see them carefully developed along with the people who are meaningful to them in their lives. We witness, sometimes with stark, almost antiseptic clarity, the disease that takes Marie-Laure LeBlanc’s sight, and we see the tender yet durable bonds that develop between her and her museum director father as they flee their comfortable Paris home along a path of brutal hardship until they find a measure of asylum at the home of Marie-Laure’s wealthy great uncle, who himself is so overwhelmed with PTSD from his experiences in World War, which cost him the life of his brother, Marie-Laure’s grandfather, that he stays permanently locked up in his house. We watch Werner Pfennig as he and his beloved sister develop the indivisible unanimity of young orphans and delight in the excitement of discovery when Werner finds a short-wave radio and begins to sort through its exciting mysteries.
Along the way, the accoutrements of Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s lives fall away while they are swept into the torrential eddies of world conflict. Marie-Laure’s beloved father leaves one day for a trip he expects to last a few days and is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, to be heard from again only in occasional letters that ultimately dissolve into time. Werner leaves his sister to join, first, a regiment of Hitler Youth and eventually an elite school of highly trained young soldiers seen as the peak of German purity and superiority. Through connections involving radios – Werner’s affinity for the science make him a prized investigator capable of leading German units to pockets of French resistance issuing underground communications and the history of Maurie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne and grandfather as one-time amateur broadcasters thrilled young Werner and his sister lead Etienne to become a resource for issuing coded messages to the underground – Werner and Maurie-Laure cross paths only for one day as the siege of Saint Malo gets under way, but it is a climactic meeting that demonstrates courage and resolve for both of them. And through all this, the plot follows the search by a particular German officer for an immeasurably valuable diamond that secretly was entrusted to the care of Marie-Laure’s father.
It really is a compelling story, and yet … one is never quite clear what that story is. Is it the internal conflict that roils young Werner as he watches the brutality and indifference of the soldiers and officers around him? Is it the courage of blind Marie-Laure as she and her great uncle rise to the challenge of resistance? Is it the search for the priceless Sea of Flames diamond that is said to bring its owner eternal life while causing trauma and sorrow for the people he or she loves? Is it all these things and, ultimately, the way they blend into the fabric of unpredictable, unknowable life?
The answer is yes to all the above, which makes All The Light We Cannot See a richly rewarding, yet slightly disappointing experience. The evolution of this story often brought to mind some of my favorite authors and books. I saw elements of Annie Proulx’s lush imagery, somewhat ironically mixed with Hemingway-esque simplicity and directness. I was frequently reminded of Cormac McCarthy and was occasionally inclined to think Doerr’s book would approach Blood Meridian in scope. At other times, I was inclined to consider All The Light a more accessible – and considering the World War II setting, more comparable – story in the vein of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Yet, at the conclusion, I never felt All The Light reached the depths of McCarthy or Pynchon. Amidst all its clarity of description and passionate imagery one wishes for a clearer statement on the qualities of the people described, the nature of the forces at work in the world and the the purposes that connect and define them. It never comes. Quite, alas, like life itself, I suppose, which may, ironically, be Doerr’s point all along, though that is the one thing in All The Light We Cannot See that is never fully clear.