All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

Palampur Book Club read for February 2016

Books that boast of having won great and prestigious prizes and awards have more often than not left me wishing I could have loved/appreciated them more. As I read gushing reviews for these books and find reader after reader appreciating them I tend to retreat into my shell and let it all blow over with a distinct feeling that life is just not fathomable at the best of the times. When we picked up this book because it had won a Pulitzer, I was naturally skeptical. The blurb however, seemed more promising than others I had seen and so I decided to plunge into it with a skeptically open mind.

The beautiful blue tones of this cover are a definite incentive to dive into it. As one given to appreciate good covers, I would give full marks to this one. The title of the book is also somewhat poetical and it wasn’t until a mathematician in our group pointed out that ‘All the light we cannot see’ would refer to all the colors of the spectrum that combine to form one white light and which we cannot see normally that the depth of those six words became apparent.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, needless to say I was suitably rewarded for bowing down to pressure. Here was a book that managed to find the best in everyone even at the time of great social chaos and upheaval. All this without ever trying to aggrandize one character over another by long winding descriptions of his/her good deeds or the ‘reasons’ behind the bad ones. The author has used that rare knack of storytelling where he actually just narrates a story and lets the audience deduce what they will from it. So, he never justifies the actions of the Nazi soldiers or even condemns them. Neither does he revile an old man his state of ennui nor praise him to the rafters for overcoming his timidity. Every sentence in the book is subtly nuanced and lovingly written to lure and entrance the reader into looking for what is best in all of us – something that may not be so apparent at first glance.

Marie-Laure lost her eyesight when she was 6 years old. Her father, who looks after all the keys at the Museum of Natural History next door sets out to make a perfect replica model of their neighbourhood so she can familiarize herself with it before venturing into the real thing. When she is 12, Paris is occupied by Nazi forces and both father and daughter escape to the home of a reclusive, very odd uncle. It is here in this beautiful idyllic seaside town that the climax of the story will eventually occur. Werner is a German orphan boy living in a small mining town with his younger sister in a small orphanage. That he is something of a genius becomes apparent as he begins to create a radio out of broken down parts. His sister has her own brand of intelligence which seems incredibly mature and distressingly naive at the same time.

The book is about love and relationships and each one is dealt with in a manner that shows a light hand and a great mind behind it. The relationship of a blind girl with her widowed father is utterly beautiful and poignant. I was steeped in admiration for this man who worked so hard to make his daughter’s life as independent and comfortable as he could in the circumstances that he found himself in. He isn’t a demonstrative man nor an overtly passionate one, but his love for his daughter, his inherent honesty and principles and his dogged determination are only to be deeply appreciated.

Werner’s relationship with his sister, then his bunk-mate Frederick and finally with the hulking figure of his colleague (whose name I can’t remember ) are each as different from the other as they are significant in his short life. Here is a boy who is a genius at maths and science and yet is not in a position to move further than the mines in his provincial little town. The war brings an opportunity for him to break out of the confines of this drab existence and forge a future for himself and his sister as well as delve into something he loves more than anything – science. Morals take a back seat when hunger and poverty are the only alternatives that loom large in the background.

Even the most apparent and visible villian of the book, apart from the faceless raiding bombers and the advancing armies, shows a distinctly human side as he pursues a lost legend in the hopes of defying death and reuniting with his daughters back home. His obsession becomes more and more justified in his eyes as he faces a fate that seems otherwise unavoidable. How many times have we, the inhabitants of a modern, scientific world, succumbed to bargaining with some unseen divine force for the sake of our loved ones and for cherished desires?

The different storylines are initially bound together by the most slender of threads and then finally merge in a seamless tapestry that, although inferred to happen right from the beginning, is still beautiful to behold. A book that can be read more than once and with joy every time. A simple book that I found appealed to people who are not habitual readers or even occasional ones.  A must read.

 

 

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