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Wars and Death of Childhood- the Unsuspecting Casualties- Book Review- All The Light We Cannot See – By Anthony Doerr.

The Unsuspecting Casualties of War- Courtesy: Getty Images
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Published: 2014
2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction






It is a matter of sheer coincidence that I found two books written by authors from 21st century about the worst wars in the last century. The first one was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (My review of The Book Thief- Click Here to read). I was worried if it was too much of similarity for the book to be able to hold my interest, after one has read the beautiful account of the second world-war in The Book Thief.

But then perspective is what any author worth his salt can bring to his version of the story. The writer sits perched on a vantage point from where he watches the events of history and interprets them for us, the readers. The place from where he looks at the events makes the book or breaks it. While Markus Zusak and Anthony Doerr both speak about the war, its ugliness, how it irreversibly impacts the lives of kids in the war-zone, the tone, style and scope of the two books vastly vary.

While the prose of The Book Thief is more elegant, more elaborate, more definite in voice; All the Light We Cannot See is softer in approach. It is a story wrapped in silk. The book tells the story in almost whispering tone- short, crisp and urgent. Carmen Callil in his review in The Guardian  calls this style echoing the static of radios at another, calls it high-pitched, operatic, relentless.  He laments that the writing is interspersed with more than right dosage of adjectives and metaphors. But to my taste, this is perfectly told story with great gentility and appropriate delicateness. Even with his metaphors, Doerr never loses the story in long, winding sentences. In that sense, he is closer to Scott Fitzgerald than to Joseph Conrad. I loved it.

I understand, most reviews are written by journalists. A good journalist always loves the story which is closer to the facts and which doesn’t wander about. I, on the other hand, love when the writer, delicately steers us to the facts of the story. He, rather than thrusting truth on us, conditions our souls to bear it, and indulges us with truth. Truth in any case is never unambiguous and never definite. It carries many shades within. A war is many things and is never one-dimensional. It brings out the best and worst of us- a clichéd proposition, nevertheless, true. 

The story is broad and extensive, in direction and spread. It must have been hard for the editors to shorten it for the sake of meeting the standards of brevity often equated with modern literature. It is a great story of hope lingering through the melancholy of the scars of war, with the myth of a pearl built into it.

The Plot- The story is based in two sides of warring nations, France and Germany. It is a great story of hope lingering through the melancholy of the scars of war, with the myth of a cursed pearl sewn into it. Although in the beginning of the story itself the main protagonist, the blind French girl is assured by her father, the museum-keeper, that there is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day towards success or failure. But no curses  a myth silently lies dormant in the story- the myth of the pearl containing the sea of flames. He is a good father. His daughter in the beginning of the story suffers slow degradation of eye-sight and he a widower, a single father bravely teaches her how to deal with blindness, with so much of love and patience, counting steps, walking to places. He has the thereness of Hans Hubermann of The Book Thief, of any father as he tells her that he will never leave her, not in a million years.  The war doesn’t care about a father’s commitments or a child’s broken heart.

The story opens in France in the year 1944 as the war is dying, Germans are ceding the grounds and Marie-Laurie LeBlanc is 18 years old and she accidentally discovers the pearl, of the shape of an eye-drop in the model of the city her Papa had built before he left back for Paris and never came back.  It was the model of the city of Saint Malo, the city which was a refuge for Marie-Laurie LeBlanc during the war, as her grand uncle becomes, Etiene who becomes her protector and friend, reading to her Jules Verne and Charles Darwin. She reads in Braille, and then with her uncle reads on the radio. The words flow across the boundaries.

Then, we go the beginning of the war, 1934, in Paris, when the madness began. Marie-Laurie LeBlanc, 6 years old, is fast losing her eyesight, and the war is looming over the nation. She escapes Paris in time with her father, who carries with him the stone, the accursed, magnificent jewel, which, as per myths, will keep the owner alive forever, but will curse him with a lot of sadness and ill-luck. We do not know why her father comes out of Saint Malo on the ports of Brittany, having escaped from Paris and goes back to Paris, never to return, leaving his little, blind girl with her Grand uncle as every second Etienne’s house grows colder; every second it feels as if her father slips away.  We also do not know if he gets arrested and later fades into probable death because he parted with the stone or whether the stone protected Marie Laure through the worst of the war.

On the other side of the war is a 7 year old Werner Pfennig, an orphan who is an exceptional electronic genius, with soft white hairs who loves hearing the broadcasts of the Frenchman, Etienne on science, with his sister Jutta. They have a sanctuary in small German town where the childhood thrives for a very small time amid the cries of Heil Hitler when Werner’s genius becomes his curse. Werner’s childhood is not only annexed by the state, which is already at war, he is soon sent out to the fronts with fake age certificate. He has already lost his close friend in the military school. Frederic who suffers with poor eyesight, and hides three things, his eyesight, his hatred for war and his love for birds, to be in the Hitler's military school. He was the only friend Werner had as his childhood was acquired by the state and he spends rest of his life in vegetative state. 

The story toggles between France and Germany across the chapters. In the end, Werner could trace the little girl on radio, but keeps quiet about it to save her. Once her reaches the Saint-Malo, he again saves her from the desperate German officer looking for the accursed pearl. The girl gets rescued by the liberation forces and Werner is taken as prisoner of war. A tiny delicate thread ties the white haired young soldier to the blind girl, Love or friendship, we do not know and it does not matter. What we know is that Werner would think about the the girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist and when Werner, lost in the thoughts about the outcome of the war, walks into the landmines, built earlier by his own army, he had in his possession the miniature town model which Marie-Laurie’s father had built for her and in which he had hid the stone before it was taken out by Marie. Jutta travels to Paris to return that model to Marie-Laurie. The two women reminisce the inherent goodness of the German boy with white hair, the boy who made such a faint presence. It was like being in the room with a feather. But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness, didn’t it?

The story folds up in sadness lingering and strangely mixed in hope as we find Marie-Laurie growing up to be a grandmother. Life goes on. It is with sadness who could not walk along. It is also a lesson to those who reads the news of young boys being used as terrorists and then leave it half read with disinterest. There is a lesson when the writer writes of those who survived the war, “Even those who have returned, she can tell, have returned different, older than they should be, as though they have been on another planet where years pass more quickly.” Wars are created by older men and younger men die in them. Marie-Laurie hears Madame Manec: You must never stop believing.  Neither should we, neither should we.


Reviewer’s recommendation: Must, must read

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