Since its publication, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See has, for the most part, received adulation and praise from readers and critics. The novel has been described as textured, intricate, mythic and haunting with Amanda Vaill of the Washington Post describing the book as “enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.” This adoration has further been reinforced with the novel’s appearance on the shortlist for the National Book Award.
While I agree that the writing is gorgeous, and appreciate the book’s almost fairytale quality, unlike most of the critics I never completely engaged with the novel. Or more accurately, I was engaged with the first half of the book but gradually found my interest waning.
Before I can explain why, I need to provide some context. All The Light We Cannot See is set during World War 2 and alternates between Marie Laure, a blind girl who escapes Paris with her father during the Nazi invasion and Werner Jutta, a German orphan whose expertise with all things electronic catches the eye of a member of the Nazi party. The book skips around in time, starting in 1944 just as Saint Malo is about to bombed by allied forces and then drifting back to the mid 30s and the childhood of Marie and Werner.
Also introduced in these early sections is the Sea of Flame, a precious diamond worth “five Eiffel Towers” that may also be cursed. As the Germans advance on Paris, the Museum holding the Sea of Flame manufactures three facsimiles of the precious jewel. These copies and the real diamond are then sent from Paris. One of the couriers is Marie’s father and it comes as no surprise to the reader which version of the diamond he is protecting. The subsequent search for the Sea of Flame by Nazi treasure hunter Von Rumpel, tasked to collect and value the jewels of Europe, drives the plot of the novel. But really, at its heart, The Light We Cannot See is a story about abbreviated childhoods and how love and beauty and a sense of wonder can shine a light on the darkest moments.
And for the first half of the novel, the character work and the plot is matched perfectly with the lyrical writing. This is especially the case as Marie and Werner discover the world around them. For Marie it’s coming to terms with her blindness:
Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing. The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.
For Werner it’s falling in love with science and radio:
The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism; there’s a pause and a peal of static, as though a record is being flipped, and then he enthuses about coal. […] Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?
However, as the novel progressed my cynicism and prejudice started to kick in. This can partly be attributed to Von Rumpel’s search for the Sea of Flames. With Marie’s father imprisoned by the Nazi’s she’s becomes the caretaker of the diamond. Because we know she has the real McCoy it’s inevitable that Von Rumpel and her path will cross. By the time Von Rumpel arrives in Saint Malo in 1944, the place is about to be bombed and he has gone from a suave Christoph Waltz-type to an over the top villain who believes the diamond can cure his cancer. It all gets a bit predictable and by the numbers as crazy Von Rumpel hunts for Marie in her Great Uncle’s large house. And with Werner somewhere in the background, it ends exactly as expected.
But predictability aside, my biggest problem with the novel can be leveled at Werner’s story. After he catches the eye of the Nazi party member, Werner is sent to the National Political Institutes of Education, a boarding school where young boys are taught to be good Nazis. He befriends a boy named Frederick whose slight frame and odd love of birds makes him an outlier among the other boys. (It’s implied that Frederick only got in the school because his father is high up in the Nazi party). Werner tries to protect Frederick, but the inevitable happens and Frederick is bashed senseless and forced to return home with a brain injury. Soon after Werner – who is still only 16 – is sent to the front lines so he can use his expertise in radio to triangulate the broadcasts of partisans.
At no point throughout the events described does Werner grow beyond that boy fascinated with radio and science. Oh he has doubts and concerns, the treatment of Frederick bothers him, but it doesn’t seem to change him. He neither rebels against the system or becomes a fully fledged Nazi. He just is. A young man who understands radio and broadcast wavelengths.
I wanted Werner to get dirt under his fingernails. I wanted him to either run off and be a partisan or swallow Nazi propaganda whole. But it’s clear that this is not the story Doerr is interested in telling. In an excellent interview with Jill Owen’s from Powell’s Books, Doerr states,
I wanted the reader to get to the point where he or she is actually cheering for Werner’s first find in Russia when they track down that resistance transmission and Volkheimer goes ahead and kills those people. I wanted that to be a very morally complicated moment for the reader when they’re saying, I want Werner to succeed here, but I understand what that success entails, which is murder.
The fact that Doerr expects us to be cheering for Werner leads me to believe that for him Werner never grows up, he’s always the boy who discovers radio for the first time who we cheer as proud parents when he achieves something special.
But my prejudice tells me that Werner, for all his good intentions and the fact that he had very little choice in the matter, is still a Nazi who aided and abetted in the killing of partisans and civilians. And so for me the situation is not morally complicated. I stopped feeling any sympathy for Werner once he became a Nazi.
I’m not arguing that Werner should be transformed into a foaming at the mouth villain who constantly goes on about racial purity. We have Von Rumpel for that. I’m arguing that given what he sees and what he does, we need to do more than cheer for Werner as his character progresses through the novel. If anything we should feel a sense of tragedy that an innocent life has been twisted toward such evil. But for the meeting between Marie and Werner to have any impact we still have to love them equally, we still have to be cheering them on. And so Werner is stuck in amber, a boy who just wanted to understand science and play with radio. A boy who seems magically protected from the vileness of Nazi propaganda.
Yes, I grant that I seem to be asking for a different book than what was intended. And it’s hard to blame the author for following his vision and not mine. And yet I can’t get that sour taste out of my mouth, the feeling that for all its gorgeous prose and thematic richness, All The Light We Cannot See is a contrived novel where at least one of the characters has been stuck on pause to provide for a particular effect.