Diamond in the rough

With so much attention given to the artistry of his prose, Doerr’s story fades into little more than static.


All the Light We Cannot See · Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 2014 · 530 pages, hardcover

Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with many an accolade for his stylistic prose. Verbs find themselves severed from their subjects and sentences end up two nouns long. With little variation in tone throughout the novel, Doerr writes with a pen tuned to the limited frequencies of drama and melodrama. It works, but only half the time.

All the Light We Cannot See is the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, an orphan in a small German mining town during the years preceding and during WWII. Marie-Laure’s father is keeper of keys at the Paris Museum of Natural History, and the LeBlancs must leave the city, carrying with them the museum’s most valuable and most dangerous item – a supposedly cursed diamond – once German soldiers march onto the city’s boulevards. Across the Rhine, young Werner, because of his technological skill with radios, has been requisitioned for the Hitler Youth, and he accepts his enrollment as a way out of a gloomy future in the mines.

Oh, what this story could have been! Placing style above substance, Doerr at least knows where his talent lies. While a few sections do read like overly filtered Instagram posts, for the most part Doerr has the skill for creating scenes that are vividly real.

And it’s the scenes of this book, written in alternating snapshots of Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives, that make this novel good reading because with such a somnolent story there is little room for Doerr’s characters to come into themselves.

Werner and Marie-Laure are just lively enough to plausibly exist inside of each two-page vignette, but they are not adequate to fill out a 500-page novel. Marie-Laure, for all her perceptiveness, is impervious to change. From six to 16, Germans in jackboots driving her from home and artillery shells bursting above her, and still her worldview does not go further than what Jules Verne and a collection of whelks can provide. Werner is hardly more real, though he at least undergoes some minor, if somewhat forced, growth in mindset.

The novel’s background characters obediently abide by the rules of black and white morality. The French are uniformly good. In fact they are so good that Madame Manec finds not one or two but eight other women living in her neighborhood who are not merely passive during the occupation but who are eager to help in the resistance. The Germans, without fail (or unless pardoned by virtue of being Jewish, female or the main character) are, of course, horrid. Poor Frederick is an exception when he is abused as a blurrily defined stand-in for Integrity.

When the story finally rouses itself enough to limp back onto the pages of the novel it does so just in time for the end of the war.

And Doerr picks up his story hurriedly, making up for lost time and ushering Werner, through a curious spell of Higher Meaning hypnosis, from hospital sick bed to conveniently placed landmine.

Because once more, the story is secondary, and we are in haste to get to the last pages of the novel and to write the requisite war memories, the “Where are they now?” piece that must needs be part of any good war novel.

Story aside, what Doerr does well is work his main idea into the novel. He uses symbol and structure to bring readers’ attentions to his themes, and though he occasionally employs some very blunt hints he doesn’t rely exclusively on these cues.

Doerr tempts his readers into believing the stone’s threatening legacy when he exhibits the first tentacles of the war alongside the diamond. He doesn’t explicitly tell readers that 1939 has arrived; we are left to gauge the year by Marie-Laure’s age, a fact he writes toward the top of each early chapter to mark the passage of time. When the museum announces that after 200 years in storage it will exhibit the diamond for the first time, tanks are grinding toward Poland: release a curse and God knows what will happen.

Doerr also writes the curse into the architecture of the novel. Thirteen locks guard the storied diamond and 13 chapters lock it up again after the war recedes and the diamond is forsaken.

The recurring elements in Doerr’s book – the diamond,  radio technology, natural history, birds and fight or flight, Jules Verne, music (the diamond even shares its name with Wagner’s protective “sea of flames” in Die Walküre) – connect his beautiful snapshots more intimately than his story ever could.

The story inside Doerr’s novel is little more than static, but white noise is easy to ignore. Read the book for the scenes, the sensory detail, the graceful themes and the message that humans will excise from their minds that which they cannot bear and turn blind to the unfathomable.

All the Light We Cannot See · Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 2014 · 530 pages, hardcover


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