Now I understand.
For the past two years – and especially since my time last March and April at the American Academy in Rome – friends have enthused over Anthony Doerr‘s writing. My only experience was through his short memoir Four Seasons in Rome, which while an interesting read struck me as something he did because he had journals from his time at AAR and decided to make something of them. Not a terrible thing to do, but also not up to the level of the reviews of Doerr’s work I was hearing from friends.
Then over the first two weeks of August, I read All the Light We Cannot See. I’ll repeat myself. Now I understand.
What a lovely, rich, engrossing, and uplifting book. First of all, Doerr is a poet with words, but he has a scientist’s mind. This is as finely crafted a story as I’ve ever read, with the shifts in time and character all put together in an amazing sequence that pulls the reader forward with anticipation. I can easily see why it took him ten years to write All the Light We Cannot See. At the end I was sad there wasn’t more.
I won’t bore you here with the details…the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, for goodness sake. Chances are you’ve read it. But if you haven’t, then take this advice from someone who doesn’t dive into fiction all that often: Read. This. Book.
Here’s the synopsis from Doerr’s website:
Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks. When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris in June of 1940, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure’s.
Doerr’s gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of multiple characters, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.
The synopsis of the story does not do this book justice. The language, the depth of characterization, the understanding of so many aspects that require detailed explanation, the keen tension that runs throughout…all are pivotal to this work.
A colleague of mine – Priya Chhaya – went to hear Doerr speak at the Arlington public library recently, and came away impressed by the power of words. She wrote about that topic on her personal blog, and I want to quote from her observations:
Because of…current events I found Doerr’s presentation especially moving. He was charismatic and funny, serious and inspiring. He walked us through WWII Germany where cheap radios were used to prevent communication beyond its borders and citizens only heard propaganda giving them “enemies” to blame. There is no more real life evidence on the power of language and words than in the propaganda of the Third Reich.
However, the magic of Doerr’s book… is in finding hope through words despite their absence. In his story he uses radio waves (invisible, yet all around us) and brings together a blind girl in German occupied France and a member of Hitler’s army through storytelling. While fictional in form, Doerr is able to show the power of language when it is allowed to flow freely in all its forms – in Braille and through a hidden radio in an attic. In the talk he states that “literature is a gym for your empathy muscle,” and emphasized that the more you read the more you are taken beyond your own life and situation. Consequently embracing other visions, experiences and points of view living side by side with your own.
I love the line “literature is a gym for your empathy muscle.” All the Light You Cannot See is a powerful book. As Marie Laure’s grandfather says in a lesson heard by Werner in his youth, that he remembers at the time of his most important decisions, “Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever.”
More to come…