Thursday, 29 September 2016

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr


Novels set during World War 2 are usually a huge challenge to read however we all found All the light we cannot see a real page-turner, despite the horrendous incidents portrayed. The young character’s lives and moral dilemmas are so engaging they make the reader keen to know what happens. Someone even wanted a happy ending! Interwoven with their lives are themes of luck, curses and superstition.  There are also the themes of logic and light (and its opposite).  There is also mention of numerous books through the text which play an important role in the lives of the main characters.

This novel traverses 1934 to 2014 in Germany and France, but the main action occurs in 1934 and 1940-1944.  The central characters are Werner Pfennig, a German orphan born in 1926, who is a gifted radio technician and mathematician and a courageous and blind French girl called Marie-Laure LeBlanc, born in 1928.

Werner has grown up with his younger sister Jutta in Zollverein in a Children’s House in Germany and Marie-Laure has grown up in Paris with her Papa, a museum locksmith. It is the story of their lives during the war and how they come together for a very brief few hours in Saint Malo in Brittany in 1944.  

Werner despite being very young is drafted into the army to work as a radio technician and travels from Germany into France and finally to Saint Malo trying to intercept enemy radio transmissions. Marie-Laure at the same time escapes from Paris and ends up in Saint Malo with her great uncle, Etienne. When her father is captured and taken prisoner in Germany she is looked after by Madame Manec, Etienne’s housekeeper, and she changes Etienne’s life. The link between the characters is through the radio broadcasts from Marie-Laure's grandfather and uncle, heard in Germany prewar and during the war by Werner in France.

The story’s structure is not continuous but flits around in time and place and most chapters deal with Werner or Marie-Laure separately. They are all short and punchy.

One of our members likened this novel to a ‘big baggy 19th century one’, in the way it has lots of stories within the work as well as lots of minor characters impinging on the main characters. There are some wonderful portrayals of people – such as Madame Manec who is a great cook and has looked after the reclusive Etienne LeBlanc for years but immediately warms to Marie-Laure and becomes a great support for her as well as dealing with practical matters. One member loved Jutta, for her wisdom and conscience helping her brother to work out deep moral concerns, even though she is stuck in Germany in the orphanage. We all admired Antony Doerr’s different perspective on war through these characters – he makes them very appealing despite the horrors they witness and experience.

Frederick, Werner’s sensitive friend is another person we found appealing, despite his tragic destiny.  While at the army training camp Werner learns from Frederick’s strength of character and morality and how to be human and survive the war.  He realised that picking on the weaker person was not going to help him. Frederick’s mother seemed to be so uncaring and nasty before the army inflicted the torture on the boy. This experience disables him. His mother felt guilty afterwards and showed her love by caring for him for the rest of his life.

Frau Elena, the matron of the orphanage is not a stereotype matron in that she is compassionate and caring and a good cook. She also recognizes Werner’s brilliance. As well she is feisty with the authorities. We all hated the rape scene in Berlin and were shocked by the girls’ submissiveness.

A different sort of person is the German army officer, von Rumpel, looking for the Sea of Flames jewel. We thought he was a stereotypical personality with his prostate cancer and his psychotic behaviour. He created huge fear for Marie-Laure and for the reader. In contrast we really liked the gentle giant, Frank Volkheimer who cares for little Werner through much of the war. 

The Sea of Flames, a precious stone owned by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle impacts upon the lives of Marie-Laure, her father and eventually Werner. It is crux of the superstition and luck themes. The key from this museum also traverses the novel and turns up in unusual places.  

Logic helps Werner work out the radio frequencies so vital to the German war offensive as well as tracking down Marie-Laure. Marie-Laure and her papa use logic to get her around Paris and around Saint Malo after learning the streetscape through the wooden models. Logic has a calming influence too when trying to cope with living in a time when things are out of control.

Light in the title has to do not only with Marie Laure’s blindness but also with the state of the countries during the war and peace afterwards. Light is also an analogy for doing the right ‘thing’ which is a concern for both young people. Werner also experiences a period stuck in the basement of the bombed hotel when all is dark for him. When he escapes to the light he meets Marie-Laure. When Werner was very young he heard Marie-Laure’s grandfather talking on the radio saying ‘open your eyes … and see what you can with them before they close for ever’. (p. 86, Fourth estate edition). His father also dies in the coal mine in the dark, a memory which haunts Werner. 

Books are also important markers in this novel – for instance Frederick shows Werner the magnificent Birds of America  by Audubon. And Werner sees another copy but less splendid at Marie-Laure’s house. Her uncle gives her Twenty thousand leagues under the sea by Jules Verne which they read together and which gives her added strength when she is very frightened. While growing up she reads Around the world in 80 days.  Also Werner’s earliest book is The principles of mechanics, which he likes as much as Marie-Laure likes her novels. We were not sure of the purpose of the books except to highlight their importance in the lives of these young ones.  We also admitted many of us hadn’t read the French classics.

Bees are also another theme – the Bees hotel for instance and the crests of bees carved into the oak.

We appreciated the language as well – it is clear, concise and lyrical at times. One reader noticed that there were many descriptions of the environment. I must admit they escaped me completely. The language is very evocative and not overblown.

Only one member has been to Brittany and she loved it. She saw little villages and nuns in traditional garb and elderly ladies wearing traditional costume. It had great charm.

There were a few less complimentary comments about this novel, such as some members were not convinced by the ending and could not see the point of carrying the story up to 2014. It didn’t really achieve much they felt. One reader was disappointed that the children spoke like modern young Americans, ‘doing math’ for instance. She also felt that Frederick was weird. We were also a little confused about the destiny of the Sea of Flames – was it really gathering moss in the sea grotto or was it with Werner and that was why he had to die ?

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up Sylvia, and thanks so much for getting it done before you went away. We had a great wide-ranging discussion, and you've captured it well.

    I'm still looking for someone to explain the "bees" motif, other than that perhaps everyone had their jobs in the war (like bees in a hive do) and that they were all buys as bees? But, anything else I wonder?

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