I finally read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. I’ll admit I was motivated to read the book, in part, because I had failed to read the last two books for my book club and couldn’t stomach being a slacker for the third month in a row. But also because I heard so many people rave about it. Vastly different people, in fact. My father-in-law, Harold, a highbrow cerebral type and a friend, Joe, who spends his free time mountain biking, wood-working, and taking classes in advanced drawing, both really liked it. Two men of different temperament and outlook brought together by what, I assumed, must be a truly gifted storyteller. Despite all of the hubbub around the book, in my life and beyond, I waited until three days before my book club meeting to begin reading the 531 page book. I finished it less than forty-eight hours. And I am not a fast reader.
Here’s a brief description of the book from Amazon if you haven’t already read the book:
“From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”
The stand out character for me was the German boy, Werner, an orphan who has a particular genius for fixing and operating radios. I found his struggle to grow up and become himself compelling and very, very sad. One of my favorite scenes is an exchange that happens between Werner and his cadet friend Frederick, whom he meets at an elite Nazi military training school.
“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?” Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.
For Frederick, though, that’s not the question: “Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”
“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”
And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”
This material, Doer’s story, is not simply the stuff of fiction. Nor is it restricted to history, to Nazi Germany. What makes this story so tragic is that it is so damn real. Maybe that’s why it speaks to an academic and an artist, to two men separated by generations and perspective. Because found within these characters is a universal theme about how we all struggle, in one form or another, to become who we want to be. We all, at one point or another, stop believing that we own our lives. Instead we do what is expected of us, perhaps what we wrongly expect of ourselves, because we don’t believe we have the freedom to choose otherwise. Can an orphan destined for the mines really become an engineer? Can a boy expected to enter the military change course and study birds, become like James Audobon? Doer shows us what happens when we answer no to these questions: complete and utter darkness. The light I see in Doer’s story is to become like the blind girl, Marie Laure, who does not let the world determine who she will become. She owns her own life, following after what she loves (such as snails, the ocean, and Jules Verne). And in doing so she becomes the person she wants to be, her life is her own.
All the Light We Cannot See has many gifts to offer the reader. One of the most precious, I believe, being a reminder to follow after that which inspires us. Radios. Birds. Snails. The ocean. To follow after what we want is to become most essentially ourselves.
Can you think of a time you told yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I want?” If so, how might you reclaim it?