Wednesday, July 13, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
Recommended Ages: 14+

I spent a long time savoring this book, partly because I over-borrowed audiobooks before my most recent vacation and, now that I live six blocks from my workplace, I don't get as much time to listen to them as I used to. Also, the loudness of the air conditioner in my house rules out listening at home most evenings at this time of year. So, last night I finally finished it after having it out of the library for more than a month, and let me tell you what the rest of my night was like: I was too upset to get to sleep until about 3 a.m. As I lay in bed, tormented by depressing thoughts and feelings connected with this book, a niggling worry that I wasn't going to live through the night gradually transformed into a miserable presentiment that I would make it after all.

I didn't think of doing it at the time, but in retrospect I should have spent those hours praying, and especially asking God not to let another catastrophe like World War II happen ever again. Sooner the Flood of Noah!

This Pulitzer Prize winning, National Book Award short-listed novel is only its author's second, coming a decade after his debut novel About Grace. It depicts the great war of my grandparents' time from the points of view of three remarkable people whose fates are intertwined: a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, whose father is a locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History, and who ends up spending most of the war with her agoraphobic great-uncle in the seaside village of St. Malo; a tow-blond German youth named Werner, whose keen mind for radios and math makes him an asset to a military unit dedicated to destroying resistance cells, and whose conscience is tormented by an intuition that he is being swept along in a movement of evil; and a sergeant-major named Von Rumpel, who specializes in confiscating art and jewelry for the Reich, and who comes to believe Marie-Laure's father possesses a certain divinely enchanted (and cursed) diamond that has the power to cure the cancer that is killing him.

So, Von Rumpel is motivated to find that magical diamond in a hurry. Meanwhile, Werner realizes the illicit radio broadcast he has been ordered to track down is coming from the house where Marie-Laure lives - and also recognizes it as the source of a children's science program that captivated him and his beloved sister when they were little kids. And Marie-Laure, who with her great-uncle is up to her neck in a local resistance cell, only belatedly realizes the awful responsibility her father hid in a miniature model of the village that he built for her before he was sentenced to hard labor.

The story-line oscillates, or spirals, between alternating segments of sequential narrative of these character threads on their converging courses, and brief glimpses of what happens when they collide during the climactic Allied bombing of St. Malo. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the fate in store for them can possibly be other than deeply, horribly tragic. As the possibilities for a clean escape for them dwindle past the point where there seems to be any hope, you find yourself caring more deeply about what happens to them and other people around them. It is, in its final effect, an emotionally bruising book about a brutal period, and its effects (the book's, I mean) linger in a way that, at least in my case, led to hours of restlessness, sighing, and calling out aloud to fictional characters whom, whether they lived or died during the course of the story, I found myself mourning. I mourned their deaths, their lives, their whole generation of European civilization (now rapidly dying off), and the wounds of body, mind, and conscience that they took away, never to be entirely healed. I mourned for their missed connections, their loneliness, their losses, and so much that the world lost due to the devouring beast of war.

It wasn't an easy pill to take, but it was a beautiful book to read. It is populated by people who seem to have souls, even though they exist only in words. It is a book with soul, and atmosphere, and agonizing suspense, and colossal horror, and human ugliness, and a beckoning hint of a possibility of something for which I don't know the right word, except perhaps "redemption," if understood in a totally secular and non-dogmatic sense. That hint, at times, provides the one slender thread of hope that seems to give one the power to keep reading. Nor do I know a better way to describe the reason the book left me feeling the way it did than to add, that possibility of redemption was not left entirely unfulfilled. World War II being what it was, one can only expect a happy ending within certain limits. Which limits apply in the case of these characters? That is the question that will keep you turning the pages.

This review is based on the CD audiobook narrated by Zach Appelman.

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