Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.
I am taking my children to visit my grandmother next week. They have not seen each other in years. My boys were too young to remember the last time they saw her and she, due to Alzheimer’s related memory loss, likely does not remember meeting them. She loves to talk about the past, though. She can relate intricate details of the apartment that she shared with her parents, 6 sisters, and 2 brothers. She loves to recount stories about high school (she studied cosmetology and had a 19 inch waist). There are always stories about my grandfather and her struggling financially while raising their sons and how much it meant to have their families near.
After reading Anthony Doerr’s All The Light we Cannot See it occurred to me that she has never talked to me about the war. My grandfather was in the Navy during the second world war and maybe the silence on this topic was for him. I am sure there are things he preferred not to relive. My family is Jewish and although all of my grandparents’ immediate family was in the United States, I suspect that their parents knew people that disappeared into camps. It had to be terrifying and unreal. Somewhere along the line, I guess they decided not to talk about it and I never asked. I am reluctant to ask her about it now. She is aware enough of her diminished state that she is frustrated by it. Reminiscing makes her happy and I don’t want to ruin that for her by asking her to remember things she would rather not.
I prefer to think that it is kindness and not cowardice that keeps me from asking difficult questions. If I am being honest, though, I will admit to myself that it is easier to read fictional accounts of true events. I have been to the Holocaust Museum in DC twice and both times it destroyed me. I was unfit for anything else for days. Stories told through the eyes of people that did not really exist are easier to ingest. Especially a story told as beautifully as this one. And, it should be noted that the worst atrocities are kept in the periphery of this book.
All The Light has two protagonists. Marie-Laure in France and Werner in Germany are both beautifully crafted and as the story progressed I found myself wishing for and dreading the point where their storylines would intersect. Marie-Laure is sightless and motherless. People around her perceive these things as disabilities, but her father never does. He fills her life with magic (not real magic, this isn’t Harry Potter goes to war) while helping her learn to read braille and navigate the Parisian streets. Werner lost both his parents and is raised in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta. His childhood in post world war one Germany is sparse and hard and very nearly joyless. Werner is destined to work in the mines that killed his father and this knowledge of his future casts a pall over much of his childhood. In what at first seems like a stroke of luck, the war changes Werner’s fate.
Novels with a visible structure sometimes tick me off. For instance, the nesting doll structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was annoying beyond belief to me. I was so aware the whole time of the architecture that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to engage with the story. I knew going in to All The Light We Cannot See that there was a call and response structure to the story line and I worried that it would interfere, but that did not happen at all. Instead, the short chapters and back and forth point of view move the story along at just the right clip and never feel like a gimmick. Doerr’s prose has a lot to do with that as well. As soon as I finished this book, I wanted to read it again just to admire the way he strings words together. His writing is a lush green. It is full of life even when, especially when, describing people and places who are too tired or fearful to really live.
They rattle down the long gravel lanes, past pit cottages and trash barrel fires, past laid-off miners squatting all day on upturned crates, motionless as statute…. All around them, the figures of second-shift workers shuffle into warehouses while first-shift workers shuffle home. hunched, hungry, blue-nosed, their faces like black skulls beneath their helmets.
Don’t you want to read more!?!
In addition to moving back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner, the novel also moves back and forth in time (thankfully not as often or it would be dizzying). This too is done brilliantly. Each time shift giving you a little more information about and interest in the characters and their stories while also leaving you with… not exactly a cliff hanger, but… a need to know still more.
I related to and loved this book on so many levels I really don’t know where to begin. I love that two people who are far apart and have never met can still affect each other’s lives in ways both profound and intimate. I love that Doerr wrote a Nazi that I understand and love and don’t feel a need to forgive. I love that a book that spans 70 years feels like it happens in a matter of weeks. I love that Marie-Laure’s sightlessness seems more of an enhancement than a disability and that she was written so beautifully that I saw what she saw. I love that I learned about Breton and Saint Malo. I love that this book was about the magic of enchanted gems and trigonometry. Yinz should read this book and tell me what you love about it.