All the Light We Cannot See is easily one of the best books I've read in 2015. I was mesmerized by it from the first moment. I lived and breathed the book for days. If I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it. If I was reading something else, I was wishing I was reading this book instead. The last book I remember feeling this way about was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Both books have been highly decorated with awards both Pulitzer Prize and Andrew Carnegie Medal winners, and National Book Award finalists.When my second book club selected All the Light We Cannot See for the August 2018 club meeting I decided to read/listen to the book again for two reasons: One, because it is hard to hang onto details over time and I wanted to participate in the club discussion fully, remembering details to add to the repartee; Two, because I loved the book so much the first time I wanted to experience it again. It did not disappoint me the second time around.
What is the book about? There are lots and lots of themes which coalesce nicely by books end. But in a nutshell here are the themes, as summarized by Doerr himself:
Radio, propaganda, a cursed diamond, children in Nazi Germany, puzzles, snails, the Natural History Museum in Paris, courage, fear, bombs, the magical seaside town of Saint-Malo in France, and the ways in which people, against all odds, try to be kind to one another.In the first club discussion the question came up about the significance of the book's title. I decided with this re-read that I would focus on that question and look for instances related to "light." Here is what Anthony Doerr says about the title on his web page:
It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.I noticed all the ways that Marie-Laure could see even though she was blind. And how blind many of the soldiers/officers were even though they could see. In one scene there are two German soldiers trapped under floors of rubble, who come to understand how difficult it is to navigate in a world without any light. The descriptions of the ways that Marie-Laure used her other senses to navigate in her world were really remarkable.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. "In one of the first scenes of the book we meet two orphans, Werner and his younger sister Jutta, listening to a radio transmission they have found after fiddling around with a broken radio to get it working. They find a transmission of a French scientist talking about light, “What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. And the children are able to escape through the invisible waves for a moment from the horrors of their lives. Later on Werner finds himself repeating lines from this transmission to himself, "Open your eyes and see what you can, before they close forever." In a lot of ways this becomes Werner's mantra. Eventually we learn that Marie -Laure is related to the French scientist and another of his transmitted messages relates to her perfectly, "So how, dear children, does the brain, which lives without a speck of light, build for a us a world full of light?"
In addition to winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, All the Light We Cannot See won the Audie Award that year, too, for best recorded book. I listened to this audiobook expertly narrated by Zach Appleman by S & S Audio. I have to tell you how the whole listening experience was magical. Zach handled the French and German expertly. I got lost in this story listening to his silky voice. Here is a three minute sample for your listening enjoyment.
Now, I do want to warn potential readers that the book meanders around. Sometimes we are in Germany with Werner or his sister, other times we are in Paris or Saint-Malo on the Brittany Coast in France with Marie-Laure and her father. Sometimes it is 1942 and the next page it is 1944, and the following page back to 1942. I can usually keep track of this kind of shift, but I know some readers really don't like it when a story is told in a non-linear fashion.
If you haven't read All the Light We Cannot See, I am not sure what you are waiting for. Look for it at your local library and if you can get a hold of the audiobook, I highly recommend it. If you ever get a change to hear Anthony Doerr speak in person, I recommend that, too. He came to a bookish event in my home town and I was blown away by what an interesting person he is.
At 531 pages, I will count this book for the Big Book Summer Challenge, even though I counted it for the same challenge three years ago. Ha!