Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.

 

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Review: “Your Wicked Heart” (Rules for the Reckless #0.5) by Meredith Duran

Your Wicked Heart

All Amanda Thomas ever wanted in life was to travel. Taking up a secretarial job after the death of her parents, she didn’t expect to find herself stood up at the altar in Greece by a viscount. When she goes to confront him, she encounters a dangerously handsome man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton. While Amanda is still reeling from this shocking development, the man unceremoniously kidnaps her and locks her in a cabin on the next ship back to England.

Spence has been traveling all over Europe looking for his cousin Charles when he hears that a man has been using his name and letters of credit. Following the trail all the way to Greece, he encounters the impossibly pretty Amanda who claims to be affianced to the man who’s stolen his identity and sounds a lot like his missing cousin. Believing her to be a charlatan, he forcibly takes her with him on his search for Charles.

While aboard the ship and sharing a cramped cabin, Amanda realizes that the man she had agreed to marry to flee her cruel employer was an impostor. Spence still thinks of her as a fraud at best and a gold-digger at worst till she honestly tells him that all she intended to offer her husband in return was respect, affection, honesty and support. Ever since the death of his parents while he was young, Spence had grown cynical and world-weary living with his brutish uncles and a slew of wastrel cousins. The story is about how a jaded man falls in love with a steadfast woman who makes him see the world with fresh and hopeful eyes.

Even though the novella consists of a little over a hundred pages, Ms. Duran has done an admirable job of developing the plot, resulting in a well-fleshed out romance. The banter is witty, the character development is realistic and the sex scene was written in such a reverential tone that it became the highlight of the story for me. Despite the era, Spence was a man who believed in the importance of consent when it came to sexual relations, making him a better protagonist than about 90% of all romance heroes. Amanda managed to come across as a mature woman with a realistic outlook on life despite being a straitlaced virgin. And the story contained enough twists to make the HEA not seem inevitable.

I haven’t read many romance novellas but Your Wicked Heart was an outstanding example of the genre.

Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.