“What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models… None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
I’m a sucker for beautiful writing and this is a very beautifully written novel. Doerr always has full imaginative command of his detail and, even if occasionally he feeds too much protein into his sentences, is thus able to evoke his images searingly and poignantly. The novel is a visual delight which is an especially brilliant achievement when you consider he’s often writing about blindness. Doerr’s poetic sentence writing often transfigures the familiar, allowing us to see the natural world afresh. His prose strips us of our own blindness to the beauty in the commonplace. The natural world pervades this novel like a kind of scripture. The goodies are aligned to the natural world; the baddies see it as little more than resources for furthering ambition. This being one of the many fairy tale motifs the novel dramatises. Because it can be read as a fairy tale. There’s a magical stone in the custodianship of Marie Laure’s father, a kind of Wizard (Etienne’s brother who transmits stories over the radio which Werner and his sister listen to as children) and a very clear unwavering distinction between the good guys and the baddies with few grey areas. The innocents are pure. The corrupted are beyond help. All the Light tells the story of Marie Laure who is blind (To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air) and lives in Paris with her father (an idealised character in keeping with the fairy tale subtext of this novel), a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. There, hidden in its vaults for the past 200 years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its centre: the Sea of Flame. When war comes Marie Laure and her father will become guardians of this stone. The other central character is Werner. Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mining town of Zollverein, near Essen in the Ruhr valley, heartland of the Nazi war industry. Werner has a gift of mending things and is especially attracted to radios. At night he and Jutta listen to an enigmatic French man telling stories for children over the radio – “a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams.”
As straightforward storytelling this novel is ravishing. I liked the short chapters and the flashing back and forwards in time. It reminded me of David Mitchell in its disregard for the perimeters between literary and commercial fiction. Doerr, like Mitchell, romps back and forth between the two camps with great poise and ease.
I’m not quite sure what Dave Eggers means when he says Doerr “sets a new standard for what storytelling can do” because there’s nothing groundbreaking about this novel. Like I said it’s straightforward brilliant storytelling. On one occasion Doerr uses a cheap trick, introducing a new POV to crank up tension (an informer who lives near Marie Laure) and then discarding the POV for the rest of the novel but on the whole the artistry of this novel was spellbinding. One of the novel’s themes is guardianship, executed especially well with Werner’s protective but ultimately impotent feelings towards the dreamy Frederick at the bullyboy Nazi college, but shown as a constant facet of the novel’s every relationship. Everyone is guarding some precinct, some stone or calling of the heart. How, above all else, we are all guardians of our own flame which, in the novel, is often seen as our relation to how we use our time and best dramatised through Marie Laure’s great-uncle, the shellshocked Etienne who after WW1 became agoraphobic and never leaves his house until circumstances force him out. This idea is also expressed by Werner – “He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.”
Transmitters/transmission is another constant theme. The diamond transmits a curse, coal transmits energy, light transmits codes and of course the radio transmits a channel through which Marie Laure and Werner first connect and establish their elective affinity. Doerr creates a world we’re all blind to, a world pulsing with invisible transmitting circuitry. So what began as a clever stroke of emotional manipulation – the positing of a blind girl at the heart of the novel – becomes a tour de force of thematic choreography.
Map-making is another theme. Etienne’s broadcasts create a map that unites Werner and Marie Laure. Marie’s father builds her a miniature scaled model of her Paris neighbourhood and then, when they move, a miniature model of Saint-Malo in order that she may feel her way through a perfect replica of her surroundings. Werner is mapping out enemy transmitters during the war. Once again Doerr is exploring the invisible grid that maps out our lives, the light we cannot see.
The bitchiness of Carmen Callil’s review in the Guardian was astonishing. Rarely do fellow writers publically ridicule each other in public. Just the opposite. There seems to be a you-pat-my-back-and-I’ll-pat-yours attitude to reviewing so you have to wonder why her review seemed so personally malicious. Often the reviews seemed to have this novel down as a brilliant page-turner but not great literature. I’ve been wondering about this. I adored reading this novel and then perhaps, a day after finishing it, felt maybe I had been somehow tricked into liking it better than it deserves. Does Doerr lack a little subtlety in his emotional manipulation of the reader? If you write a novel about a blind girl with an adoring ideal father and an orphan boy who protects his younger sister you’re obviously going to almost immediately command a great deal of sympathy for your characters. These are the innocents of fairy stories. Also the stalker von Rompel who Doerr makes no attempt to portray as anything but pantomime villain. But all these motifs belong to the fairy story aspect of this novel and within that context are managed well I think. It’s also been said Doerr doesn’t deal with Nazism very convincingly. Is that a valid criticism? The English patient is a WW2 novel and it could be said that doesn’t deal with Nazism very well either. Doesn’t prevent it from being a brilliant thought-provoking novel.
“Impossibly, the static coalesces into music. Volkheimer’s eyes open as wide as they can. Straining the blackness for every stray photon. A single piano runs up scales. Then back down. He listens to the notes and the silences between them, and then finds himself leading horses through a forest at dawn, trudging through snow behind his great-grandfather, who walks with a saw draped over his huge shoulders, the snow squeaking beneath boots and hooves, all the trees above them whispering and creaking. They reach the edge of a frozen pond, where a pine grows as tall as a cathedral. His great-grandfather goes to his knees like a penitent, fits the saw into a groove in the bark, and begins to cut.”