All the Lights We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
All the Lights We Cannot See is a lyrical, and deeply engaging book that deals with the intersecting lives of select memorable characters living during the tumultuous years of the second-world war. War stories of horror from the vantage point of families have always followed a familiar narrative arc. One that brings to boil the gradual loss of humanity that catapulted the war into the pantheons of one of the worst in modern times. They start with the naive and innocent depictions of life before it all came crashing down for the commoners who felt as alienated with the war as oil to water. And yet, the stories of survival and of tragedy invoke a sense of larger purpose – that of refusing to forget the trauma and the darkness that pervaded in those times. Cathartic at times, the stories are tales of survival, resilience, grit and optimism.
Anthony Doerr, in this Pulitzer-winning book, relies on a breezy structure of short chapters that weave through flashbacks from before, during and the final days of the war. These modular time machines, all a sort of hindsight, make for a thrilling climax as the different strands of the story assimilate itself in a sort of serendipitous rendezvous. I have always kept a distinctive love for stories with intersecting characters. Those that weave together people from seemingly disparate and unfamiliar contexts to bring about a grand coming together of sorts. For whatever reason, they invoke a sense of wonder and affirmation of life itself. Like that last scene in the movie Babel, which pans out from an apartment loft in Japan to depict the scale of the world we live in, with stories connecting the very fabric of our collective existence.
In a nutshell, the story revolves around two parallel characters – Marie Laure (French) and Werner Pfenning (German) who find themselves, at a young age, facing the direct impact of the war, albeit from opposing sides and each with his/her own moral compass to bear. Marie Laure is a blind daughter of a locksmith who works in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, while Werner Pfenning is an orphan with a proclivity to science and a curiosity for the world around him. Their attempts to deal with the world they have been dealt with serves as the foundational backdrop of the story that relies on fundamental traits of resilience and morality to bring about the parallels.
As a literary tool, the flashbacks are particularly effective when we realize that the two characters are each entrapped in buildings that are within 5 blocks of each other even as the war unfolds over the rest of the continent.
The story of Marie Laure is exquisitely crafted with a tapestry of moments and images that, while predictable and vaguely familiar, invoke a sense of nostalgia and longing for the simpler times that existed before the war. That of Werner is reminiscent of notable dystopian stories (1984, Handmaid’s Tale) that depict the slow and gradual descent into totalitarianism. Indeed, the euphemism of “Throw a frog into hot water and it immediately jumps out. Put him in a water tub and gradually bring the water to boil murders it” is brought to the consciousness as Madame Ruelle wonders whether that applies to the aggressor (Germans) or the aggrieved (French). Thus, the idea of bringing the two lives to intersect is inspiring and makes for a richer story.
Some of the minor characters in the novel seem less developed and brazenly willful even though their presence do throw a dilemma of moral barometer with the reader. As with the Major Van Rumpel who, as part of the Reich, is entrusted with collecting precious and rare valuables that lie scattered around in the Nazi vanquished territories. His pursuits, whilst bare and oddly generic, asks the reader to decide on the lesser of the two evils between the chilling art collector (Rumpel) and the obedient soldier (Pfenning). Who is the worse of the two? One who attaches more importance to possessions without as much being violent versus the other with a creeping sense of morality which exists in parallel with the sins that come with blind obedience.
Mr. Doerr’s book is elegant in its structure with a readable style that keeps the reader hooked into the story right from the get-go. An entertaining read that still does fall short of serious literature. For that, I would point to Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada.