Germany

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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The Prisoner's Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that's been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I've known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman's brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents' wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We've visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing - we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner's Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to "employ" the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner's youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor's edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.