You know how I just said The Silkworm was terrific summer reading? Well, it is. But actually, the one book you want to drag around in your canvas tote bag and get sunscreen all over is this one, All the Light We Cannot See. That is, if you want to be completely transported. If you want to wonder, while you’re not reading, what the characters are up to. If you want to see life a little bit differently when you’re done.
Do you like historical fiction? Of course you do, right? But there’s a lot of it out there, and too much of it features minor characters walking through various famous historical episodes full of costume description and attempts at antique-sounding dialogue. (I mean, I love Hilary Mantel, but she has a lot to answer for these days.) What’s much harder to find is historical fiction that’s both completely absorbing and that illuminates the period in question. (Which Ms. Mantel does in spades, of course.)
All the Light We Cannot See is set on the Breton island of St. Malo in the summer of 1944, and in the lives of the two principal characters as they work their way toward that spot. On the one hand, the blind girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, an intelligent and courageous teenager with a keen interest in natural history. On the other hand, Werner Pfennig, a mechanical genius swept up by the German army and sent to St. Malo to find illicit radio transmissions. The action toggles back and forth in micro-chapters, Werner/Marie-Laure, Werner/Marie-Laure, with forays into the long climactic days of the American bombing of St. Malo. It sounds confusing, I know, but Anthony Doerr keeps us firmly grounded. You will always know where you are, and when.
Oh, Anthony Doerr, what a writer! It apparently took him ten years to produce All the Light… and I’m not surprised. There is so much packed into it! Doerr is clearly a natural history buff and I am not, but he sweeps you right along with him — trees, clouds, insects, snails…. lots about snails. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing. And we’ve all read plenty about war, but Doerr’s treatment of the fear, the hunger, the grayness, the despair, and the aftermath is remarkable. It has much of the immediacy of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, which is saying a lot.
There’s a great deal of lyrical musing in this novel — not ordinarily my favorite thing. But Doerr’s point of view swoops in and out from the most private secrets of a character to the movements of the stars and those shifts in perspective help us put the personal, national, and even natural dramas into perspective. There’s been a lot of rumination and memorializing in this summer of military anniversaries. So much ruin trails in the wake of war. Doerr makes it personal, and vivid.