“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in 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 single spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
There are good books, and then there are fulfilling books. Distinguish each however you’d like—I’ll leave you to define the ambiguity of the two on your own terms—but there is one thing that is neither ambiguous, nor can be disputed: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr will overwhelm each list.
Quick (or not so quick) synopsis: The novel is split into two distinct, but parallel narratives. In the first, blind Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father during the cusp of the Second World War. Daniel, her father, spends his days building a scale model of Paris for his daughter so she can learn to navigate by touch alone. He is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History who has been entrusted with a questionably authentic and valuable cursed gem, the Sea of Flames—Three replicas were created. Their authenticity remains a mystery to Daniel, as well as the other museum employees who are entrusted in order to safeguard the stone—to take with him when he and Marie-Laure flee Paris. They journey to Saint-Malo after the invasion by the Nazis to stay with Marie’s partially insane great uncle and his housekeeper.
The second narrative chronicles the story of Werner, a German orphan with a passion for radios. Living in a poor mining town with his sister Jutta, Werner dreams of leaving; he knows he is destined for greater things than working in the mines that killed his father. He gets his wish when he is chosen to attend a brutal academy for the Hitler Youth. Werner’s talent for repairing and working with radios is quickly realized, and he becomes part of a special assignment to track the resistance across Europe.
Their paths cross as Marie-Laure and her family struggle for survival, Werner struggles with his morality, and a gem expert is on their tails in search of the notorious Sea of Flames.
It wasn’t the hype and great ratings that urged me to read All the Light We Cannot Sea; but instead, it was a review that praised the novel’s “gorgeous metaphors.” If you’ve read my other reviews, then you probably already know why this was a hook, line, and sinker. But if you haven’t, here’s why: I have a burning refusal to accept anything in this world as it is. Quite literally, I breathe metaphor. So I naturally couldn’t not read this. Let me tell you something… gorgeous is an inadequate adjective. Doerr’s use of metaphor is stunning. Not at all am I exaggerating when I say that each line bleeds symbolism and depth, so much so that each chapter felt like a mouthful that I struggled to swallow. The list never seemed to end: light, spirals, Jules Verne, radio, the War, sight, Life, and on, and on, and on ceaselessly. All I wanted was to decode and fathom each little part, and boy did I try, but towards the end I realized something very important: to pick apart a work of art as delicately crafted as Doerr’s and to attempt to understand it in its entirety is to eradicate its wonder. In the spirit of the novel’s theme: being left in the dark will truly leave you viewing an unheard of spectrum of light.
All the Light We Cannot See is a stunning work of postmodern literature—that is, a narrative that breaks traditional storytelling approaches with unusual grammar and syntax, and most importantly, fractured timelines. The novel opens in 1944 at the story’s climax, but very quickly takes readers back a decade to 1934; and it continues on and on until the timelines converge to carry us all the way to 2014. Doerr ingeniously gives readers flashes of the characters fate before chronicling their lives to develop emotional stakes in readers right from the get go. The second of Doerr’s most trademarked literary choices, in my opinion, is a sense of “induced synesthesia.” Very rarely did he depict things as they appeared visually; instead, I felt the landscape of the city. I heard the war. I smelt the fear of Marie-Laure and the self-doubt of Werner. Anthony Doerr allowed me to see all that a blind girl did, and sympathize with a teenage Nazi; and if that isn’t fulfilling writing, then I have never read a fulfilling book.
Despite already being highly accredited, I’m certain within a few year’s time this novel will be everywhere, and Anthony Doerr will turn into a household name. If you choose to read it, and I so hope you do, I just have one piece of advice: let the story fill you. Whether or not you choose to allow it, I can promise you it will happen.
**Side Note: After finishing the book, I read All the Light We Cannot See: Sidekick by Dave Eagle. I highly recommend it if you’re compelled to delve deeper into the story!