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All the light we cannot see

21 April 2020

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

I just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and it was one of the best books I’ve read. I was left with a lot of thoughts on the story and the writing itself.

First things first, there will spoilers. Now onto some thoughts I have.

1) The parallel timelines and stories of Marie-Laure and Werner. The book alternates between two storylines–the past, which starts in 1934, and present which takes place in 1944. In my opinion, this was one of the coolest techniques Doerr used.

I see the intent of this two-timeline structure as twofold. First, as a simple yet effective method to underscore Marie-Laure and Werner’s transformation. Within the span of pages, we are transported from the safeties of Marie-Laure’s home in Paris to the shell-stricken nazi stronghold of Saint Malo. Likewise, Werner ricochets between a naïve 8 year-old curious about his world and a cynical young man who has become another cog in the Reich’s machine. It’s an effective method to juxtapose each character’s different selves. All the while, constants continue to anchor each character so we aren’t completely thrown off: Marie-Laure’s love for writing, Werner’s fascination of the Frenchman’s recordings, and the Jewel of the Sea.

Second, the unconventional timeline shifts how the audience approaches the novel. Traditionally, good writing provokes questions about the future. Who is this Great Gatsby? Where does this yellow brick road lead? How was the murder committed? In ATLYCS, it’s flipped. Readers still ask questions, but instead seek explanations from the past. We know Werner ends up in Saint-Malo, but we can’t explain why. We learn Marie-Laure is trapped in her Uncle’s attic before we learn why. So we eagerly wait for the past to converge on the present to find our answers and explanations.

2) Light, sight, and the lack of. In ATLYCS, unseen threads weave the character together and knit the story together. Marie-Laurie and Werner, while they don’t know it, find themselves in Saint Malo for the same reason. The recordings which inspire Werner to explore radios could only be broadcasted from one house, the one Marie-Laure eventually finds refuge in. In a world that is so set on the visible and tangible, I like how Doerr takes a step away by showing us the invisible and inexplicable play just as big of a role. So in theory, “all light is invisible”–perhaps just on a different wavelength from what we are accustomed to.

I also think light intertwines with morality. I couldn’t help but think about Werner. As a Nazi, he is the text-book definition of a bad person. He is also arguably responsible for dozens of innocent deaths. Yet at the same time, Doerr complicates Werner so that we can’t definitely say he is immoral. When he expresses brotherly-love for his sister, sympathizes with Frau Elena, and brings his unbridled passions to his radios, we find him relatable, even like-able. Doerr shows we are no different from light. While we can quantify certain wavelengths, it’s impossible to fully comprehend its complexity or unravel its infinitude. There is more to each person than what we can see. Ironically, one of the few characters that truly understands and sees the good in Werner is Marie-Laure–a blind girl.

Lastly, light bends and arcs. Doerr shows us all that we are capable of goodness. As MLK once stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. The book is set in a historical period unparalleled in death and destruction. Yet, we still manage to find goodness in people, in Marie-Laure and Werner, Madame Manec and Frau Elena, and even the old man Etienne. It’s no different in real life. Doerr simply offers us a reminder.