Though not planned, on this Memorial Day I have just finished Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. Set in occupied France leading up to, during and after World War II; the author immerses you in the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose lives ultimately come together with a gentleness that belies the inhumanity of the times. I’m not a book critic, but several elements in the novel attract me.
In particular the initial and end setting takes place by the Jardin des Plantes in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Because one of the main characters is blind, the author painstakingly provides details about the neighborhood, details that are critical navigation points that help a blind girl find her way from her apartment to the place of her father’s work at the Museum of Natural History. They walk along the graveled garden paths, where I have spent quiet moments watching nannies and grannies looking after their young charges. They climb to the gazebo on the hill that stands against the sky. They walk to the Gare d’Austerlitz, as we have done so many times. Don’t we always embrace the familiar?
But I get away from the centerpiece. The timeline begins with the dropping of leaflets on Saint Malo – Allied leaflets warning of bombs to come, warning residents to go to the country. The novel wraps itself before and after those dates in a wrenching but beautiful story of the people and places and divisive horror of World War II.
So much of the novel is rich with detail, with the intricacies of each person’s talent or chosen path or imposed route in life. While I always have had an interest in World War II, due in part to the active participation of two favorite uncles, I find new stories and viewpoints continue to emerge from the mountains of books, documentaries and movies that try to make some sense or at least some historic preservation of this insane blight on the world.
I do come away from All the Light We Cannot See with a new perspective of those in Europe, whose lives were entangled with World War I, with the aftermath of poverty and anger and building rage that would lead to World War II and that aftermath. So many lives knew little but the approach to war, the constant deprivation, the devastation and the horrible lasting consequences. Like a constant pool of eddies, those circumstances whirled their lives pulling them this way and that with little leeway for choosing a plan for life.
Remembering those who served and those who suffered.