★★★★/★★★★★ All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
“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. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
This book follows two main characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc who has lost her sight, and Werner, an intelligent boy who is a member of Hitler’s Youth. After the occupation of Marie-Laure’s hometown, her and her father have fled to St. Malo, where her uncle lives, afterwards the Germans get there too. One of those Germans is Werner, who is disillusioned with his life and the horrors he has seen. Their lives cross paths, and their story will be told generations after they have passed.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
The tale is much more complex than a story about World War II, there are secret gems from ancient times, tiny models of cities, islands that keep prisoners of war at bay, a passion for science that leads to good and bad, the idea of disillusionment, and the strength of friendships and family bonds.
“A line comes back to Marie-Laure from Jules Verne: Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”
Marie-Laure and I could have been friends simply because of this quote. I spent my childhood reading Verne’s works, so when I read this line, I was drawn back to that book, and what it meant to read this quote in such a story. Her and I wold have gotten along quite well. Marie-Laure is blind, and she has been built a model city so she can find her way around it, to the minimal detail, to perfection, and some of the best descriptions in the book come from her own descriptions of such a model. She is strong, and despite all that is going around her, she is kind. After she meets Werner they have a conversation, in it she explains how people call er brave, but she knows that she is not, there are others that do the same thing as her and they are simply using that evolutionary trait to survive in order to continue. “But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” I would disagree, it is brave to live the way she, and many others, are. Anyone that can manage to keep their souls in such a horrid time is brave. A world is destroying itself over stupid ideals, and in it there are people that care for others, that are noble, generous and compassionate, and in those people, the rest of us find hope.
“You will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause.. … You will eat country and breathe nation.”
And here we see how many Germans were filled with illusion over Hitler’s ideals. He took those that had been going through rough patches, and the powerful, and gave them what they wanted, and aspiration to rule the world and bring the German Empire to its former glory, and for a while, they sort of did. These are the ideals in which Werner was not much interested in. Werner joins Hitlers youth after the Nazis become enthralled with his scientific skills. He is proud of himself because he sees this as an opportunity to expand his knowledge, but soon he sees the officers are more concerned with teaching the ideals of Hitler and rotten political views instead of science. “Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.” If that is not a born, I do not know what is. Of course, it all goes downhill from here, he remains working with the Nazis and gets set to the St. Malo. In here he is charged with discovering the radio transitions that are being emitted, and his dreams and hopes continue being shattered to bits. He is haunted by the things he has done, and the moments in which he has done nothing while others died, an affecting moment being after he tracks a transmission and finds a girl shot in the head with a radio in front of her.
Perhaps the best part of the book is the magnificent writing.
“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
He managed to mix beautiful adjectives with scientific terms. This is not done all of the time, sometimes some of his beautiful sentences are mixed with other sentences that are too abrupt to keep the tone and beauty of the others, making the sentence/paragraph quite grotesque. His writing is also quite alluring when he shifts time, back and forth the stories fall into place, between the siege of ST. Malo to decades later, and everything in between.
“Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”
This quote brought me to tears. If any of the phrases in this book could be true, this one would win, because it is. The war lasted years, people were born and died during one of the greatest disaster of all time. Jewish children that only saw ghettos as their homes, gypsies that only knew running from men dressed in black, Africans that ran away to other countries to survive, homosexuals that were hunted down because of whom they loved, Polish people that were slaughtered alongside their families when they tried to save others from being slaughtered, the mentally and physically disabled that did not stand a chance and whose families were not aware of what happened to them, communists and prisoners of war that did not survive to tell the tale, resistance fighters in all countries that died in front of many who did nothing and those that were afraid of doing anything and those that continued to do things in secret and those tat believes the right thing to do was nothing, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses that were slaughtered much like the others. Yes, these were peoples whose only memory before their last breath was war, a war that threatened to go on, only to go on, until the last individual was gurgling blood. So yes, this phrase made me cry.
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”