“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.
This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.
The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.
Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.
I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”
And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”
Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:
It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).
It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.
Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:
We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.
And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.