When Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was released in 2014, I remember doing a quick Goodreads search to see the reviews. Everyone loved it, they said, but the ending was a let-down. I placed it on my “to-read” list with no particular priority, and figured I’d get to it when I got to it. Last week, I finally got to it, and I couldn’t put it down.
Books have a special resonance depending on when you read them, and I don’t doubt that living in Germany and reading this book added to my experience of it. Set alternately in France (Paris and Saint-Malo) and Germany during the Second World War, it tells parallel stories of teenagers Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her father when they are forced to flee Paris during the occupation. She is unknowingly given something to protect for the duration of the occupation—and the tensions and suspense of her storyline are made more tangible and terrifying by the knowledge that whatever is happening around her, she cannot see. Her narrative arc was fascinating and chilling, made more so by the author’s deft devices—he writes her so that she was born with sight, but later lost it, and is just learning how to be blind when they flee their city. You sense her defenseless and confusion as she is forced to navigate not just the new waters of her blindness, but of an entire world that no longer makes sense.
Werner’s story is also nuanced; while the portrait it paints is not a sympathetic one of a young Nazi, it is an empathetic one. Werner’s story begins as an orphan in a poverty-stricken town—as a ward of the state, he will be forced to work in the coal mines starting at age 15, where like his father and thousands of other men in his town, he will likely die an early death. But Werner has an incredible gift for science and engineering. When he repairs the radio of a Nazi commanding officer, he is given the chance to leave the coal-mines and attend a prestigious school— a choice that, as you read it, seems as obvious to the reader as it does to Werner. And so begins Werner’s career as a budding Nazi engineer. As he progresses through his schooling and training, the reader watches him vacillate between initial acceptance of the status quo (it was, after all, the thing that rescued him), to the more complicated moral dilemma—what should I do when something everyone else says is right is something I know in my heart to be wrong?
Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories eventually intersect, and Werner is given a chance to do the right thing. This plot point, for me, is what makes such an interesting parallel to the status of modern-day Germany as a country: can actions of evil be redeemed or atoned for by actions of goodness? Or is the black mark one that will never be absolved?
[To further complicate the question—I always find it interesting that some Americans refuse to go to Germany because of it’s Nazi past, and yet America has equally heavy strikes in our racial past that are somehow redressed because “slavery/racism is over.” (And slavery, though a huge strike, doesn’t even begin to wholly encompass America’s complicated relationship with “otherness”). A German woman I met once posed the question, “How are we held responsible for 12 years while others exonerate themselves for centuries of abuse?” The issue is loaded, complex, and above all, thought-provoking—a description that fits the story as well.]
Like other readers, I’ll note that the novel’s finish is a bit of a let-down. It reminded me of a wave pulling back out to sea—the heft and grandeur of it has already crashed, and the ending lingers on the beach a little longer than it should. But focus on the rest of the story—the questions it asks and the beautiful lines (some chapters could certainly be standalone stories), and you’ll find yourself willing to forgive the end on behalf of the means.