Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See manages a difficult balancing act. First, and most conspicuously, are the multiple narratives. There is Marie-Laure LeBlance, a young, blind girl, and her devoted father, a locksmith and tinkerer, who are desperately trying to survive in occupied France. Then there is the equally young Werner Pfennig, a German orphan, possibly an albino, whose intelligence enables him to escape his destiny in the coal-mining town of Zollverein, but only by committing his service to the Nazis and gradually losing his innocence. Then there are the multiple timelines: Doerr begins after the conquest of France and then rewinds his narrative to fill in the pertinent background details, and will even – in a move reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Atonement – conclude by time-warping his reader to the present day, a half-century after World War II, to catch us up on his characters’ fates.

For the most part, these difficult gambles pay off. The narrative moves with nary a hitch backwards and forwards through time, and the reader, attached to the characters from the outset, eagerly turns page after page. Even the more outlandish plot elements and coincidences – a 100-plus karat diamond that may or not be cursed, the fact that most of the villains have some conspicuous physical deformity, even as the protagonists have physical handicaps – do not, ultimately, interfere with the story or our appreciation of it. Doerr manages to be sentimental, even romantic, without breaking the spell he casts on us, and for that he is to be applauded.

But – and there is a glaring but, come novel’s end – there is a terrible lack of dramatic heft that gradually becomes unbearable. This is World War II, as dramatic a conflict as history can provide, and yet never does Doerr convince us that the stakes are very high. A central character is killed, for example, and the novel passes over his death as gingerly as it has moved from chapter to chapter throughout the book. There are notably few deaths depicted in the book, and those few that are certainly are meant to lend gravitas to the narrative, but something in the telling falls short. A review in The New Republic attributes this to Doerr’s unwillingness to assign blame: war itself becomes a villain, a force unto itself that sweeps up everyone, Allied and Nazi alike, in its whirlwind, but this, I think, is only partially fair. It is the natural inclination of novelists to probe for humanity, even among Nazis, and despite the failings the New Republic review attributes to him, Doerr does manage a chilling portrayal of the Nazi propaganda machine, and something of the ruthlessly effective methods they employed to stamp out “weakness” (read: kindness, compassion, empathy) in their future recruits.

What really prevents All The Light We Cannot See from attaining to its high promise may ultimately be its young protagonists, who are either too naive or too good to serve as very adequate windows into this period in history. Whatever emotional complexity the novel might have possessed cannot be sustained through them. Or perhaps Doerr, despite his obvious and enviable talents, ultimately gave preference to his page-turner of a story at the expense of whatever literary ambitions it might have otherwise fulfilled.