All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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It is always a good thing to have a particular book thrust upon you, one hand-picked by someone who knows and loves you and insists, therefore, that you must read it; that it was somehow written with the intention of eventually landing in your hands. So it is that Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See came to me, as a mandate from a dear friend: “This. This you must read.”

This: the intersecting stories of a blind French girl devoted to her father, the sea, and mollusks, and a German soldier with a passion for stories that stream from the air through radios he fashions from bits of wire and discarded batteries. His talents land him on the front lines of the Allied invasion in 1944, where the blind girl’s voice and history call to him, a personal collision at the crossroads of warring nations.

While many authors have captivated me with their stories, few authors manage to wow me with their construction skills – with their capacity to cement word upon word and phrase upon phrase so that something magical develops where in another’s text there might have been just a string of nouns on the page; just verbs. Tony’s prose did to me what Charles Frazier’s did in Cold Mountain.  It forced me to desecrate the pages (I dog-earred corners, for the love of God!) in order to sneak back later and delight in particularly endearing turns of phrase: the way “the saw yowls to life” and “a wooden step complains beneath his weight, sound[ing] to her like a small animal being crushed.” Reading Tony’s prose, I got to watch “storms rinse the sky” and a flabby perfumer “baste in his own self-importance” all in the space of tiny chapters that flipped past with haste.

Tony himself describes his writing as dense. “I love to pile on detail,” he said in an interview with Powell’s.  “I love to describe…. I know that’s demanding, so [the short chapters were] a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’”

Beyond that lyricism, what I found most profound about this novel is a moral construct that calls to me with a particular urgency: the idea that our lives only become worth living – or, perhaps more profoundly, worth sacrificing – when we are engaged in an action that eschews our security for that of those around us. Early on in the book, a bit player with a gargantuan role says to his fellow Third Reich trainee, our radioman, “Your problem … is that you still believe you own your life.” And yet what All the Light teaches us is that the exact opposite is true: that succumbing to an external locus of control is precisely where the problem begins, that only by actualizing one’s values — or owning one’s own life — in the face of opposition can we live lives of merit that breed joy even in the face of despair. When the blind girl joins the resistance, it is then that she is least disabled; when the soldier responds to the needs of the occupied, only then is he himself free; when the haunted uncle reads illicit messages over the radio, he becomes unshackled: “Indeed, it has been over a month since he has had to curl up against the wall in his study and pray that he does not see ghosts shambling through the walls. When … he’s opening the tiny scroll in his fingers, lowering his mouth to the microphone, he feels unshakable; he feels alive.”

Of all the lessons to take away from all the literature written about the second Great War, this is a most remarkable and forever-timely one.

Update: On Monday, April 20, 2015, Tony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for All the Light We Cannot See. Congratulations, Tony!