[This post contains minor spoilers, but nothing you won’t get from reading the back of the book.]
Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is one of those rare books that is actually difficult to put down. While most books that fit this category are white-knuckle thrillers that keep us reading because we need to know what happens next, All the Light We Cannot See is gripping beyond an action-packed plotline. C. S. Lewis once said that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” while other books leave us thinking: “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.” For me, All the Light We Cannot See is that kind of book.
The novel is set during the second world war, and follows two main characters: Werner, a burgeoning young radio engineer/genius who is essentially forced to use his unparalleled gifts for Hitler’s cause, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl whose father orients her to the world, only to have that world shattered. So the book is about the invisible spectrum that carries radio signals (hence the title), and it’s about living without sight in a beautiful and often terrifying world (hence the title).
The characters’ lives are ripped apart by the unimaginable violence of World War II. Doerr uses this violent backdrop to show us more about his characters than we would otherwise see. Flannery O’Connor explained the role of violence in fiction like this:
“It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…”
It is what Doerr reveals through this violent backdrop that makes the book so stunning. Doerr’s characters are wonderful; they are subtle, nuanced, believable, surprising, and inspiring. Doerr gives us likable characters who are full of hope and potential. The phrase “what you could be” is almost a refrain in the book. Most of the key characters view the world with wonder, with hope. But Hitler’s regime rips their worlds apart, and the characters are robbed of their reasons for hope and happiness, and instead given every reason to despair, to hate, to give up. Siblings are torn apart, fathers and friends and grandparents are imprisoned and/or killed, homes are stolen or destroyed in an instant, talents are bent to evil purposes. Ultimately, the world is shown to be a dark place (hence the title). Doerr illustrates this side of the world perfectly:
“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?” (364–365)
But it is against this backdrop that Doerr shows us the light that is there, even when we cannot see it (hence the title). He convinces us, without directly saying so, that these things—buildings and music and books full of colorful birds—matter and are far more powerful than the deepest darkness ever could be.
Christian artists are infamous for insisting on saving all of their characters. (Think, for example, of God’s Not Dead, where all but one major character becomes a Christian, and the entire philosophy class acknowledges the superiority of Christian truth.) We need to grow in our appreciation for subtlety. We need to learn to value traits like faith, hope, and love—even when those traits are expressed in ways other than a repentant sinner “praying the prayer.” All the Light We Cannot See shows us bravery flourishing in big and small ways. A blind girl learning to navigate a sighted world, learning to recognize truth and manipulation, seeing what others cannot. A German soldier gradually learning that human dignity and love and friendship matter more than life or the prospect of torture. A father whose entire life has been given day by day in service to the blind daughter whose future is more promising than she could ever imagine.
One of the characters continually thinks of the hopeless miners who spend their short and overburdened lives deep underground, producing coal for a madman’s war. Throughout the book he is tempted to see life from a nihilistic perspective: everything is horrible and meaningless and then you die. But he comes to see life as a gift, however fleeting:
“He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” (476)
These images are powerful. Doerr gives us our world—amplified by violence and then enriched through subtle acts of bravery and love and enjoyment of the world and a commitment to the value of humanity, to the preeminence of relational love. The other main character that runs throughout All the Light We Cannot See is a large gemstone rumored to make its owner immortal even as it curses all of the owner’s loved ones to death. The book never gets around to affirming or denying the legendary power of this stone, but it does give several characters the opportunity to discover what they value most, where their heart truly lies.
This is the power of reading fiction. We may not be living through the earth-shattering conditions of World War II or come to possess a cursed gemstone, but we do need to better understand the human condition, to value the life we have been given, to love the people who have been gifted to us. The light is there, whether we see it or not. And it is possible to summarize the Christian life as a process of coming to recognize all the light we cannot see.