Having chosen ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Anthony Doerr as the first Barefoot Book Club book and knowing that the author had spent ten years completing the manuscript, I decided to spend time with it, rather than racing through it to see what happened. I am so glad I did.
I hope some of you out there in Cyberspace, who have read this book also will share your insights and opinions about this work, because besides the wine, tea, coffee and desserts, ISN’T that what book clubs are all about?
The diamond with its haunting myth of eternal life with eternal personal misery for the possessor presented an apt description of hell. Beautiful and dangerous, locked in total darkness, worth a king’s ransom and yet until Marie-Laure no one dared consider the simplist solution of all RETURN IT TO THE SEA. Throw the damned thing away. Five Eiffel Towers could not make up for the loss of her father, Madame, the destruction of St. Malo or her vision.
Marie-Laure has her sight until she is six years old, but her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History refuses to allow her disability to define her. He builds a miniature of their neighborhood, he fashions puzzle boxes for her to solve, he teaches her to negotiate the streets and to read braille. One of her most treasured gifts from him is Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Every birthday he gives her a puzzle box to open and when they flee Paris, he builds yet another city’s neighborhood and hides a precious object in a puzzle house for her.
Werner and Jutta have active inquisitive minds, but no prospects of using them. Werner is told over and over again that his future is set. When he is fifteen, he will go into the coal mines, the very place that took his father’s life. Still he records the questions he has about “how things work” in the world he observes. Until he finds the pieces of a radio, which he brings to life. The siblings crouch around the instrument night after night, listening to music and to a broadcast from France. A broadcast with science lessons for children. From the moment the radio parts are found, Werner’s life path alters in such a way he could never have imagined, a world that enlightens his mind even as the blindness of those around him forces him to face man’s inhumanity to man.
The novel follows both Marie-Laure and Werner as separate stories like pieces of a puzzle, each discovered piece revealing a connection that took the forces of war, the power of radio waves and the illumination of the human spirit to expose.
Marie-Laure chases light with the tips of her fingers on the braille type, on the minature village, and as she gathers shells and tends to the snails, but still a darkness much greater than her blindness closes in. Although as the reader, I know how extraordinary and brave she is, she does not. One of my favorite quotes from the book expresses this:
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Werner’s quest for light comes through mathmatics and radio waves but rather than setting him free from the darkness of the mines, it leads him into war and a greater darkness than any mine. It brings him to St. Malo where as he waits to die in the basement of the hotel after the bombing has trapped his unit the horrors he has participated in haunt his dreams. There with the radio batteries dying he manages to capture a radio broadcast that brings him hope and leads him to rescue Marie-Laure.
A few hours sharing a can of peaches, revealing to each other memories and feelings are the sum total of these light seekers time together. As they move from the house, she to safe ground and he to surrender to the Americans she shares with him her secret grotto of protected snails… leaving the diamond in its container to be washed away.
In all of this another line from the book struck me with its truth, for if the brains who have power in this world are full of darkness…well, darkness cannot beget light…
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
In truth, a diamond for all its brilliance is a cold dark object the result of heat, pressure, and time on carbon…it cannot produce light. It has no spark.
Marie-Laure and Werner lived in darkness, but in both was a spark of light…and a Spark is light in the darkness. . .and as the old Church Camp hymn “Pass it On” says, ‘It ony takes a spark to get a fire going..”