Set during and after the Second World War, All The Light We Cannot See weaves its main narrative around two main characters who both live through the destruction of Saint-Malo, Brittany, in 1944: a blind French girl, Marie-Laure and a German boy Werner Pfennig who are connected by the mysteries of science over radio waves and through the preserved stories of the past crushed into coal or hard as the largest recorded diamond, the cursed Sea of Flames.
Of course the book is more complex than this. There are many other characters against whom these main two sharpen their sense of right and wrong – Werner’s sister, Jutta who sees the darkness at the heart of the Nazi movement from the beginning, his friend Frederick who refuses to add to the suffering of others; Marie-Laure’s locksmith father who makes models of the places she lives in to help her move about in the outside world, the housekeeper who shows her how to have courage in occupied France. There are also many themes about the wonder of science and the mysteries of the puzzle of life.
However, as all the handmade puzzles of the novel can be cracked, All the Light We Cannot See exasperates me because it too seems to believe the puzzle of life can be unlocked. And whilst I can’t deny that many will devour and adore the novel, crying as the characters live through hard times or when they connect in wonderful unforeseen ways – the skill displayed in weaving the disparate parts into a whole is undeniable and delightful – the certainty that the pieces will fall into place irks me. And it may indeed be at the root of what troubles me about a lot of modern novels. Beneath the flawlessly edited prose and the carefully timed plotlines with complex characters whose lives feel real and believable is a hole that sucks the meaning from all this clever work because what is missing is a belief in the reader and an uncertainty about life.
Much like old novels that offered a world ordered by a visible omniscient author, the structure and polish of the work offers a robust and certain world view. Yes, this is brilliant. Yes, all authors whatever they say are offering a story that says something of the world they live in, that demands a reader to follow themes, avenues of thought, that they dictate. But, and this is an important but, do we need robust and certain world views or do we need books that lead us down new avenues of thought, that question our stereotypes, our shared belief in the evolution of certain thoughts and emotions? Where are those books? Why aren’t those books gaining the interest and press that the clever, elegant, self-fulfilling and self-fulfilled books like All The Light We Cannot See gain? Who is it who guides the avenues of our taste and should we trust we them?
I don’t wish to suggest that All The Light We Cannot See is a bad book. I think it is a very good book, one that makes you eager to turn the pages and join the dots. There has been real research and thought and time put into creating it and it would make a wonderful film that would force viewers to put aside their popcorn for their handkerchiefs.
It is unfair of me to unleash my feelings about contemporary popular novels upon this particular novel. The horrors and beauty of the human spirit are explored. Our capacity for knowledge, wisdom and belief are all pitted against our need for survival. And yet…
And yet, I urge someone to let me know of a less-polished novel that has moved them, shocked them, forced them into a state of raw emotion that questions some small hitherto unnoticed part of themselves. Come on, I’m waiting.
If you like reading novels about the survival of hope through the horrors of war, about brotherly love, about human invention and endeavour, then you will love All The Light We Cannot See. You will turn its numerous pages hungrily.
If, like me, you finish it and wonder what next, I’d be delighted to receive a book recommendation from you. In fact, the first one who does will receive one of the few remaining paperback copies of my novel, Home, and a copy of my chapbook of short stories, Glitches. (Not that I’m saying my work does what I’d like fiction to do, but it will just show appreciation for your effort!) I’ll be waiting for your comments…