“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Upon reading the last sentence of Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize novel, All the Light We Cannot See, I have, once again, completed The Pulitzer Project. It’s ironic—for as long as it took me to complete this reading project, I’ve now completed it twice in a few months.
I have had, at best, a tenuous relationship with this project over the course of the past 88 books and five years. I documented this in my post, “Epilogue,” and touched on it a little bit in my recap of The Goldfinch. One thing I wrote in that recap was that The Goldfinch “was a fitting a conclusion as this novel perfectly encapsulated all of the joy, confusion, frustration, happiness, sorrow, and anger of this entire Project in one…volume.”
While, at times, this project has been grueling and strenuous and frustrating, there have been a handful of novels that proved it worth my while. Books like Tinkers, Olive Kitteridge, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, All the King’s Men, The Fixer, Now in November, and others made a massive impact on me; some of them filled me with great joy, others broke me down to tears, a few brought me to dizzying heights of nirvana and bliss. Those books are the ones that kept me motivated to continue forward with the Pulitzer Project in my darkest hours. All the Light We Cannot See was one of those books.
I cannot in good conscience write a brief recap of this novel without first saying that Anthony Doerr is a writer of the highest caliber. At one point in the book he writes, ““It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is;” which is ironic because he writes with a beauty and grace that is simply unparalleled. If language is inadequate for a writer with his talents, then my writing career is just pissing in the wind.
This is a book you’ll want to read slowly—as slowly as you can—so you can soak up every last detail and allow it to rest, age, and ferment inside of you; these are pages you’ll want to savor, because you’ll arrive at the last sentence much more quickly than you’ll anticipate if you allow yourself to barrel through the book.
I read the last word, closed the back cover, breathed a deep sigh, and just sat there, staring at the book in my hands for a few moments before reluctantly putting it back on the shelf. I wasn’t ready for it to end, and I am already wanting to read it from the beginning again.
I don’t like getting too hung up on details in these recaps, but it’s beneficial knowing, at least, that this book tells the story of two adolescents on different sides of World War II—a blind orphan girl named Marie-Laure in France and a German boy with an innate proclivity for radios in Hitler’s Youth named Werner Pfennig. Each chapter jumps forward then backward in time and is made up of a series of one to four page sections which alternate their main character focus; one section will be about Marie, the next about Werner, the next about Marie, the next about a German general, the next about Werner, etc, etc. The characters and setting shift from section to section, but the timeline remains the same.
By employing this literary device, Doerr tells the story of his two protagonists simultaneously; Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives could not be more different, and Doerr does an incredible job of contrasting the two while showing how alike they are (indeed, contrasting the two by showing how alike they are). Both children, as different as their lives are, are both struggling to survive and daring to find humanity in a world torn apart by the horror of World War II. Marie-Laure is rescued by Werner and goes on to live a long, happy, productive, and illustrious life while Werner’s life ends tragically shortly after rescuing her (which, by the way, was as horrible and gut-wrenching as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or A Farewell to Arms—I wanted to curl up into a ball on the floor and endlessly moan). One goes on to work at a museum—where history is literally written—and one is lost to history forever, barely registering as a footnote.
The title of the book, “all the light we cannot see,” refers to the science of light and color and the waves that cannot be seen by the naked eyed. The title is full of meaning with respect to this story: that underneath the surface of history, there is light that has not been seen; stories that have gone untold. Scientifically, we only see a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum; historically, we only see a small portion of the story.
As incredible a writer as he is, though, I do have a few complaints about Doerr’s style:
- Doerr’s prose is unbelievable. It is some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever encountered. It’s woven with scientific and philosophical references to light, to seeing and not seeing, and the differences between the two. His storytelling, though, gets lost in all of the prose; the book is bloated with details—rich, colorful, beautiful details, but details nonetheless. The novel could have been a riveting page-turner if it weren’t for all the prose. (Despite this shortcoming, Doerr managed to balance the prose and the plot better than Donna Tartt did in The Goldfinch.)
- The main plot wraps up much too quickly. The book builds up for so long, then when Marie and Werner’s lives do collide, it is brief and unsatisfactory, and it ends with such a crushing blow. I’m sure that’s the point—that life is hardly satisfactory and is often tragic, but as a reader who was very invested in the story of these two teenagers, I felt a little ripped off.
- I felt even more ripped off by a sub-plot which didn’t really do much for the story and never really went anywhere. We all know that the Nazis held a wide variety of interests: art, science, genetics, medicine… But did you know that the Nazis were also very interested in the occult and mysticism and just about anything that was believed to hold secret, magical powers? In All the Light We Cannot See, there is one Nazi officer who is enthralled with this rare precious stone that is believed to hold such powers (those who possess the stone will not die, but people around that person will come to misfortune); that becomes the reason for his hunting down Marie-Laure’s residence. Of course, giving this precious stone REAL magical powers would have made the novel too fantastical, but Doerr could have done something more with that subplot to make the story all the more enthralling.