Saturday, December 27, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Rating: 4 Stars

It seems like the latest crop of fiction isn't discussed much on BTL in general and not at all this year. Chalk that down to wariness when it comes to trying anything new. When browsing through lists of ‘Best Books of 2014’, one title was ubiquitous – Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See’. Surely so many critics couldn't be wrong; turns out they weren’t. At the risk of recklessly slinging hyperbole – this book is a masterpiece.

With a plot spanning more than seventy years, the main action takes place around the epochal years of the Second World War. Though the narrative glides through many European scenes, the story is firmly anchored in the historic port city of St. Malo on the northwestern coast of France. Doerr’s description of St. Malo is cinematic in its detail. From its colorful past to its near annihilation during the liberation of France, the author vividly recreates a city that lingers in the imagination long after the last page has been turned.

Just as haunting are the characters that people the book: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind from early childhood; her devoted father – a skilled artisan and the principal locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris; her great-uncle Etienne a traumatized veteran of the First World War. Equally compelling are the German cast of characters – Werner Pfennig a young technical wizard forced to play a role that’s far distant from his childhood aspirations; his friend Frederick, gentle and honorable in a world that has no use for such qualities; his younger sister Jutta, who sees more than her years. All are pawns in the looming calamity that will engulf them.

Without the bizarreness of ‘magical realism’ – the plot of this historical novel is both magical and intensely real. A fabled and fatal gem that men lust to possess; treasures that must be safeguarded from the maw of war; innocence lost; strength discovered; heroism in unexpected places; and Time’s healing; the stuff of clichés…and classics.

It’s easy to rhapsodize over this novel; but it’s not easy reading though. The pace of the book is inexorably slow and a nihilistic sense of pessimism overhangs it.

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world – what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?”

Yet consider this:

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

If the book is slow, it’s the slowness of crescendo; and novels that discuss war, and omit despair and futility skirt the truth. This book is ultimately not about the pointlessness of human endeavor, but the resilience of the human spirit that seeks out invisible light.

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