I’m delighted to announce that over this summer, I finally read a book that I’ve been trying to get my hands on for the past two years. Since it came out two years ago, it’s always been checked out or on hold at the library.
The elusive book is entitled “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr and was recommended to me after I did a project on classical and postmodern fiction during my senior year of high school.
Doerr marvelously weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy, as they experience World War II from opposite ends of the spectrum. For the most part of the book, Doerr employs a classical style to narrate the events that bring these two characters from the innocence of youth to maturity and the disillusionment of adulthood.
However, he begins with a prologue, set during the climax, the bombing of Saint-Malo, and periodically returns to it throughout the narration of the events leading up to it. The details from Marie-Laure and Werner’s pasts begin to fill in the blanks, and the climax takes on new significance. This almost postmodern twist heightens the tension and draws the reader into the story.
Throughout the course of the novel, I was expecting the two to meet. Yet as the years go by and they eventually establish a connection, it seems that a meeting could be fatal for one or both. Marie-Laure begins helping broadcast illegal recordings, while Werner’s Nazi radio team travels Europe, scouting out those who are illegally broadcasting.
Yet when the time comes for Werner to kill those broadcasting from Marie-Laure’s house, he tunes in on a voice from his childhood, and he cannot bring himself to kill that. He is so curious that he goes to the house, and eventually he and Marie-Laure meet for less than a day. Yet there is an immediate bond between them, which neither can explain.
After an entire life of Nazi brainwashing, Werner has been trained to believe in Germany above all else, Germany before life and love. Yet in one encounter with his past and what could be his future, he breaks free from the cage which has been placed over his mind.
For years, he has ignored the suggestions of his sister that the Reich could be wrong, that there could be more to life. Serving Germany is all he has allowed himself to partake in, for there he has found purpose and a place to belong. Finally, his skills can be employed for a greater good. Because deep down, we all want to serve a good greater than ourselves.
Hearing the voice from his past seems to bring Werner to the surface of the water of lies he has been submerged in. It reminds him that there is a life other than that he has chosen to accept as his reality. He always had doubts, which he quelled, but now they are confirmed. If that broadcast is out there, what about others? Is there a life outside of the bloodshed which he has forced himself to accept as a normal part of his job?
Accompanied by the stirrings of love for Marie-Laure, Werner’s passion for serving something greater than himself enables him to save her from a German officer and help her to safety from the shell of city that remains after the bombing. It is also this greater good that pushes Werner to turn himself in to the Allies, for he knows he cannot return to his own.
While in the Allied hospital tent, Werner succumbs to delirium and wanders out into a field of grenades which he helped plant the week before and dies. His fragmented thoughts and questions tend toward a postmodern style, which Doerr masterfully employs to convey the confusion in Werner’s heart and mind.
I commend and admit to crying over this ending because it’s not only realistic to the tragic stories of many during the war, but it’s almost salvific. Werner makes a conscientious decision for the good, betraying his own people in order to lessen his part in the shedding of more blood. In doing so, he fulfills his role in service to God, though he might have been unaware of God as the greater good he is serving.
It is also a testimony to the power of love and mercy that the Father pours out upon every individual, which has the ability to transform the heart and mind. Though Werner’s story ends tragically, it is his sacrifice and love which enable Marie-Laure to live a long and vibrant life.
It is often tempting to become depressed at the cruelty that humans can enact upon each other. I’m currently taking a history class about World War II, and it echoes the unbelievable atrocities which I read about this summer. We can get bogged down by asking ourselves, “How could God let such things happen?”
Yet Werner’s story brings us hope, for through it we see the power of love to change hearts and through them the world. If even one soul can be changed through a revelation of truth, then the beauty of truth and love also has the power to bring about change in the hearts of today’s generation. Perhaps then we can turn from violence and focus on building each other up.
Yet even as the violence continues, we can take the opportunity to see the rays of sunlight, the voices of truth, in our lives and allow it to give us hope. Then, as Dostoevsky says, “Beauty will save the world.”