Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogThursday, January 29, 2015
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Eve Silberman
In his best-selling novel set in Europe during WWII, Anthony Doerr follows the fortunes of two adolescents as they struggle for survival, moral and physical. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who memorizes her village through an exquisitely designed miniature made by her father. German orphan Werner Pfennig, a math whiz with a gift for mechanics, chooses to attend a Nazi youth military camp rather than be sent to work in the mines. In alternating chapters, Doerr tells each young person's story.
Contrasts soon develop. Marie-Laure moves from a doll-like passivity to anti-Nazi activism; she delivers messages hidden in a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, and later broadcasts for the Resistance on a forbidden radio. The reflective Werner becomes increasingly aware that in aligning his lot with the Nazis, he's crossed over to the dark side—but he sees no way out.
He doesn't openly rebel; his moral conflicts take the form of wistful reminiscences of his astute young sister and the gentle woman who ran the orphanage where he and his sister grew up. His gentle friend, Frederick, finds escape from the Nazi camp—a place where boys are asked to turn on the "weakest" among them—by scanning the skies for birds, using a pair of antique field glasses, but ultimately defies the Nazis at a terrible price. Werner, drafted into the Reich army, uses his technical ability to hunt down –what else?--Resistance wireless broadcasters.
A third story heightens the tension. When it's clear the Germans will take Paris, the director of the museum where Marie-Laure's father works decides he must find a hiding place for the museum's most valuable possession: a diamond named "The Sea of Flames." He enlists the senior LeBlanc in a scheme to hide the precious albeit scary stone—it's rumored that a curse will follow the owner––with the result that even while Germany slides into defeat, a Nazi officer is on the heels of Marie-Laure and family.
The "Sea of Flames" adds some needed suspense to a story that, though it has a lot of beautiful writing, sometimes drags under its reverential telling. Describing Marie-Laure's blindness (congenital cataracts that left her blind by age six), Doerr writes, 'In her imagination in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel . . . piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues . . . "
Regrettably, Doerr doesn't develop characters as skillfully as settings. Marie-Laure, her father, Werner, Frederick, even the surprisingly amicable Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel remain as lifeless as Marie-Laure's miniature house. A bit weirdly, the book comes most to life life when Marie reads aloud a Braille version of Jules Verne's watery adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Captain Nemo and his guys are "flailing away with their axes" at sea monsters, it's like break dancing transforming a dance hall where you're tired of watching waltzes. Guess there's reasons some books are for the ages.
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