The Knackered Parents' Book Club reviews All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Hello and Happy New Year! Christmas went by in a blur of chocolate and a predictable lack of sleep.

The book club has almost been going for a year now and our latest book has consumed me and reminded me again how thankful I am that book club has brought reading back into my life.

So, our eleventh book was ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr. It is set in the 1930’s and 1940’s and at its centre are a blind French girl, Marie-Laure and a German orphan, Werner. We follow the twists and turns in their lives as they are confronted by war. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of 6, is forced to flee her Paris home with her father and ends up living with her great Uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. Her father hides a dangerous secret, as he is tasked with concealing a priceless diamond called the Sea of Flames.

Werner is a German orphan, who lives in a children’s home with his sister, Jutta. It is expected that he will work in the mines, like his father (who died there), but his talent for fixing radios is discovered by the Hitler youth, who then send him to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta.

The novel starts in 1944, where both characters are trapped in the besieged city of Saint-Malo and they are forced to make choices that require bravery. Doerr writes ‘All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?’ It is rare that we are really tested like this. Extreme situations, like war, thankfully do not happen every day (well at least not in this country). This got me thinking about what holds people back from being brave; the obvious answer is fear. Fear can be paralysing. Fear can make people do awful things. Werner’s fear paralyses him from helping his friend Frederick, who is declared the ‘weakest’ in his group at school. But it is Frederick who performs an act of courage when he responds to the school master’s order to throw cold water at a dying prisoner with ‘I will not’. Why is Frederick able to ignore his fear, when his classmates are not?

Fear and courage are constant motifs throughout the novel. Shortly after Marie-Laure becomes blind she is too scared to lead the way home on her own, ‘”It’s so big”, she whispers’. The contrast made of the ‘big’ world and the small girl create an overwhelming sense that she cannot possibly find her way, but she overcomes this fear. She solves the labyrinth of the Parisian streets around where she lives by focusing on all the small details around her. Instead of giving way to her fears she tells herself to be ‘calm and ‘listen’.

It seems to me that listening is the key to freeing us from fear.

Another central focus of the novel is the radio. The radio in the novel enables human connections to be made. It reaches out across countries and time and nationality and takes on an almost magical quality. Somewhere in the airways is a place where human beings can be the best that they can be.

I come back to my earlier question about Frederick’s ability to overcome his fear. Frederick is able to detect any bird from the slightest sound of birdsong. He listens and detects what others’ do not. He is in tune with something greater than himself and cannot commit the unnatural act asked of him. At the end of the novel Frederick is revisited and all he does now is draw endless spirals. Could this represent the journey of life? Nature? Moving from external awareness to inner enlightenment? From the spirals of the snails that Marie-Laure loves to touch, to the spiral staircase in Etienne’s house, there is the recurring sense that the characters’ are on a journey. But the outcome is not predetermined; there are a million choices we can make along the way.

An utterly compelling novel. A history lesson. A warning?

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