In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, the novel’s characters, metaphors, and images mirror themselves into an infinity of doppelgängers—evil twins of innocence, fascists vs. members of the resistance, coal dust vs. orphans in a German mining town, and shining jewels vs. a jeweler corrupted by greed, stealing gems for the Nazis and stalking France for the most prized gem of all: the Sea of Flames he hopes to keep for himself. The bright jewel hiding in darkness is the novel’s center and title image. The treasure propagates both light and dark as a healing, mythical stone and a cold, impotent ember.
The novel’s two main characters are doppelgängers of each other: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a well-intentioned Hitler Youth whose father died in the mines. While Marie-Laure sees nothing and does much to subvert the Nazis, Werner sees too much and—over and over again—manages to do too little, despite his intelligence and his sought-after skill with radios. He allows his brilliant, birdwatching friend to be bullied into a severe state of disability, and, unlike his friend who refuses (before he is beaten up), Werner joins in torturing an old Jew as part of their Nazi training. While Werner manages to win the reader’s heart and sympathy, he falls far short of matching the character strength of Marie-Laure and his sister, Jutta—another doppelgänger—who is able to see right through fascism yet fails to convince her brother until it is too late. Werner is stuck, both physically and psychologically, inside Nazism—trapped so long in the dark beneath bombed rubble he is thirsting to death, and held captive so long by the mental trickery and oppression of those in authority he is unable, in the end, to escape Hitler’s long-armed candlesnuffer.
Darkness is the doppelgänger of light, often but not always sporting a swastika. Marie-Laure’s blindness is a universe of light inside her head. Her innocence—protected and nourished at first by her father’s love and then via her own intense imagination—gives her an uncanny ability to overcome the ever-present destruction of WWII. Her father, locksmith and woodworker, whittles little boxes into puzzles she has to solve before finding the tiny gifts inside. He builds a wooden model of Paris for her to memorize with her fingers and find her way around their neighborhood, and later, after they escape to the village of Saint-Malo, he carves a model of that ancient town as well, walled inside a peninsula jutting into the sea, where Marie-Laure eventually helps the resistance by carrying loaves of bread hiding small paper messages. Papa’s gifts of books in Braille foster her powers of imagination, most notably Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, its own world of symbolism correlating with the metaphors in Doerr’s novel.
Often, like the girl’s blindness, the images of darkness bring forth light—the night sky arching over Marie-Laure and Papa, stars shining down while the girl sleeps in his lap outside in an open field, during their long journey to escape the bombing. Doerr’s metaphors, while often disturbing, are as numerous and beautiful as the stars or the myriad snails covering the walls in the grotto where Marie-Laure loves to visit, the tide sometimes rising above her ankles. Note how Doerr writes in the present tense, keeping every image present and alive:
But the grotto itself comprises its own slick universe, and inside this universe spin countless galaxies: here, in the upturned half of a single mussel shell, lives a barnacle and a tiny spindle shell occupied by a still smaller hermit crab. And on the shell of the crab? A yet smaller barnacle. And on that barnacle?
Doerr’s portrayal of love between father and daughter is the novel’s most powerful light we “cannot see,” so beautiful it hurts. Even when Marie-Laure discovers the world outside her father’s arms, her memory of him buoys her joy:
She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets. All of it suddenly as small as Papa’s model. But what surrounds the model is not something her father conveyed to her; what’s beyond the model is the most compelling thing.
A flock of gulls squalls overhead. Each of the hundred thousand tiny grains of sand in her fists grinds against its neighbor. She feels her father pick her up and spin her around three times.
Doerr’s short chapters, sometimes less than a page long, alternate the points of view of both major and minor characters, and he often repeats the same image pages apart but with marked contrast in metaphorical connotation. While in Vienna looking for resistance radios with fellow Nazis, Werner notices a little girl swinging in the park. She has red hair and wears a maroon cape. Later that afternoon, Werner triangulates radio signals and thinks he sees an antenna wire (which turns out to be nothing more than a painted rod for a clothesline) on the side of an apartment building. He and his small team search the flat. One of them is spooked by the sound of residents hiding and shoots them all dead. Werner notices the maroon cape hanging on the mother’s doorknob. Inside a closet where the girl from the park had been hiding, she sits on the floor with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Her moon eyes are open and moist.” Twenty-five pages later, “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.” A few pages more, Werner cannot forget the girl: “She passes through trees and road signs, veers around curves; she is as inescapable as a moon. . . . Dead girl in the sky, dead girl out the window, dead girl three inches away. Two wet eyes and that third eye of the bullet hole never blinking.” Moon, eye, blinking—each image works together to represent both innocence and death.
Werner’s innocence, while destroyed, remains intact like the ghost of the Viennese girl. Hitler cannot prevent this boy from experiencing the beauty of young love. Marie-Laure’s grandfather, before he died, broadcast in French the very same children’s radio show that reached all the way from Saint-Malo to Werner’s hometown in Germany, inspiring him as a child to learn everything he could about radios. The irony is potent, but so is Werner’s love:
Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him, a living doppelgänger to face down the dead Viennese girl who haunts him every night.
Who is she? Daughter of the broadcasting Frenchman? Granddaughter? Why would he endanger her so?
Brief notes on writing synchronicities and a new favorite author:
When I was young, I used to pretend to be blind in my big backyard, closing my eyes and making my way across the grass and around the shrubs. My little, humble-in-comparison novel Glassmusic was published in 2014, the same year as All the Light We Cannot See. Both books happen to feature the close relationship between a father and daughter, where one is blind and the other can see. Whereas in Doerr’s novel, the girl is blind and Papa can see, in my novel, Papa is blind and his daughter Ingrid, the main character, becomes his “seeing eyes.”
For the last twenty-five years, my favorite character in literature has been Sylvie, from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. She prefers to eat in the dark, and Robinson wrote some of the most lyrical scenes in near-darkness, in a room with one dim bulb in the back of a house in France while working on her PhD. I have finally found Sylvie’s equal in Marie-Laure, another character living both in darkness and incredible light and from, as it happens, the country where Robinson worked on her novel (set in Idaho). I have also discovered an American writer, though a bald white male, who writes at least as well as Robinson (and who lives, as it happens, in Idaho, where Robinson is from) and who also writes as well, I think, as another stellar favorite, Toni Morrison. Now I must read everything—short story or novel—by Anthony Doerr.