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all the light we cannot see

1 june 2016

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr's 2014 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, is both lyrical and a real page-turner. It reminded me of all kinds of other fictions: The Tin Drum, The English Patient, The Shadow of the Wind, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Invention of Curried Sausage, "That in Aleppo Once …" The Maltese Falcon, The Red Violin, People of the Book. That said, it's not really close to any of those works in subject or method, so for me it's in the best literary traditions: allusive and dialogic without being derivative.

Of all the texts I mention, in fact, the one I most frequently thought of while reading All the Light was Brian Selznick's Invention of Hugo Cabret – and this despite the fact that All the Light is a war novel for adults, and Hugo Cabret is neither. In both Doerr's novel and Selznick's, a child grows up in a magical, old-timey Paris museum under the tutelage of a mechanically-gifted father. The child eventually leaves the museum and is orphaned, but retains access to the father's secrets – not openly, though, but in the form of puzzles that she or he must solve. There are blocking characters and unexpected allies and other children and loss and memory and recovery and treasures.

And that's a lot, though the differences are even greater. In All the Light, the locksmith's daughter Marie-Laure is blind. It's wartime, as I mentioned, and she leaves not just the museum but Paris itself, for internal exile in the Breton town of Saint-Malo. (Hugo stays in his train station, which becomes his puzzle-world, much as the walled town serves Marie-Laure.) And in All the Light, the perspective shifts with each short chapter. Something under half the book is Marie-Laure's story; something under half is the story of Werner, a talented student of radio technology who uses his academic abilities to escape his own orphaned condition. Eventually Werner joins a Wehrmacht unit that uses his talents to hunt down and execute partisan radio operators. And eventually, this sinister work brings Werner to Saint-Malo.

Meanwhile, the treasure at stake in the novel is a fabulous diamond, sought after by von Rumpel, an evil Nazi confiscator of such objects. Like all such fictional treasures, the stone is something of a MacGuffin. The "Sea of Flames" gets people circulating at cross purposes, but does a lump of carbon crystal amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world?

The suspense that All the Light We Cannot See generates is largely due to Doerr's balancing of two converging time frames: the characters' backstories, and the destruction of Saint-Malo that finally brings them together, in the summer of 1944. It's a juggling act and it's carried off with panache. There's a slight tendency for each short chapter to end on a note of poetic uplift, but it's not annoying enough that you'd stop reading to find out what happens in the next.

The novel is also attentive to language and local detail. The only times I felt it was on shaky ground had to do with science. Werner, traveling to Berlin in 1941, is awestruck that this is the city where "continental drift was identified" (218), which while true enough is anachronistic, because in 1941 Alfred Wegener's theory was discredited as a crackpot notion. And when Marie-Laure's father is trying to find out if the stone he's been entrusted with is the real Sea of Flames, he tries "holding it to a candle flame" (187): probably harmless, as without pure oxygen a diamond is unlikely to burn – but not something you'd want to risk, given that diamonds are made of the same stuff as coal. But also pointless, because it wouldn't burn in a candle flame if it were glass, either.

Much more alarming, however, Marie-Laure's father tries "folding it between pieces of felt and striking it with a hammer" (187). Man, that's an excellent way to get yourself a felt-piece full of diamond shards. The fact that "it did not shatter" ought to have reassured him that he was carrying a fake, but it does the opposite.

Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner [Simon & Schuster], 2014.