Author: Anthony Doerr
The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, All the Light We Cannot See, offers the solitary reader an immersion in the tale of two children whose paths collide during WW II and for groups a palette of images that spur discussion on what feeling alive means to each of us and where we find our place of respite.
The characters quickly draw the reader in, fully realized in pithy image-full chapters. Werner, the child soldier, who, having been a bystander, has to decide whether to reach out to save a life; Madame Manec, wants to be alive before she dies by risking her life to aid the resistance and make a difference and Marie-Laure, who astutely observes, "what are words but sounds these men shape out of breath, weightless vapors they send into the air of the kitchen to dissipate and die," and who, as a child, grasps the inevitability of the world to keep spinning and "not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun," as lives come and go and atrocities are inflicted upon innocent citizens.
If you want a novel to get to the essence of life and death this may be an excellent choice for your book group.
As a reader, I was reminded of the importance of making mistakes to get to the truth and how passion and making a difference can be invigorating and make a life worth living.
Internet ResourcesAll the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015 and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist.
Look at a photo of Saint Malo to help place you in the village and understand why the Germans were able to hold it for so long.
Read a blog post of a traveler to Saint Malo and her interview with a woman who was 18 during the occupation who shares her memories.
If the theme of being human and being alive is an area you want to explore in more depth, here are two articles that offer additional breadth for your discussion: The Atlantic profiled Jean Vanier, who won an award from Templeton Foundation, on his views of what it means to by fully human— one of the strong themes of this novel.
Oliver Sacks wrote in the New York Times about his perspective on life after having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Major CharactersMarie-Laure LeBlanc, 16-year old blind French girl
Marie-Laure’s father, principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and a widower
Uncle Etienne, Marie-Laure’s great uncle who is a WWI veteran and likely suffering PTSD, has visions and is mentally unable to leave his home in Saint Malo
Madame Manec, old housekeeper and caretaker for Etienne
Werner Pfennig, 18-year old German private, an orphan and self-taught radio engineer
Frederick, very skinny bunkmate of Werner’s who is a birder
Frank Volkheimer, large staff sergeant
Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, 41-years old, gemologist who archives confiscated treasures and is pursing the Sea of Flames
Jutta, Werner’s little sister, also an orphan
Frau Elena, Protestant nun who cares for Jutta, Werner and other orphans
Curse of the Sea of Flames: “the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain… But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess would lift the curse.”
The theme of light permeates the novel far beyond the title.
When a lance corporal comes to the orphanage, “his handgun is black; it seems to draw all the light in the room toward it.”
When Werner is trapped in the cellar following the bombing, he learns, “even total darkness is not quite darkness.”
Marie-Laure notes that “out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.”
The voice of Marie-Laure’s grandfather, from the recordings says, “So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”Before Etienne carves a trapdoor out of the back of the wardrobe, all the lights are off both physically and metaphorically.
Finally, when Marie-Laure and Jutta meet as older women, Marie-Laure offers Jutta the one remaining recording of her grandfather, the one about the moon and light.
What does light represent in the novel? How do you interpret the title of the novel? What does light mean to you? How does physical light affect your daily rhythms and emotions? What represents light in your life?
Books are Marie-Laure’s friends as she sits beside her father working and travels with explorers to worlds far beyond her own. They form a strong connection for her to the world around her.
“Marie-Laure reads Jules Verne in the key pound, on the toilet, in the corridors, she reads on the benches of the Grand Gallery and out along the hundred gravel paths of the gardens. She reads the first half of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so many times, she practically memorized it.”
For Werner and Jutta the radio is the epicenter of their connection to the outside world as well as Werner’s personal connection to is place in the army.
When Werner first gets the radio working in the orphanage: “the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.”
In case, the mobility of the characters is limited, and each explores a larger world through these physical conduits. What else serves as a link between characters and the world? When are these connections a benefit and when do they become a hinderance? What has helped you or someone you know connect with the broader world when their mobility was limited?
“Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”
"Doing nothing is as good as collaborating,” Madame Manec states in chapter 84.Who among both the French and the Germans acts as the catalyst in going against the flow? How do each of these characters speak or act out, how is their divergence received and how are their lives impacted for better or worse by being a catalyst for change?
The expression of doing something rather than being a bystander has been emphasized as a moral imperative throughout history.
As Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient said,
“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
In 1999 he delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., titled, The Perils of Indifference.
In a modern setting Citylab columnist Laura Bliss shares some options for getting involved as a bystander to an assault on a subway.
Whether standing up against violence against a group anywhere in the world, or standing up for a stranger you see on the street when and where are you comfortable getting involved? When have you stepped in and when have you remained a bystander?
Marie Laure goes to the beach when she needs renewal.
Place of Respite
“Her greatest pleasure is to walk to the north end of the beach at low tide and squat below an island that Madame Manec calls LeGrand Bé and let her fingers whisk around in the tide pools…She simply listens, hears, and breathes,” chapter 74.
In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Marie reads as Captain Nemo says, “The sea does not belong to tyrants.”
Where do other characters find their place of respite? What other forms do respite take— do characters find renewal in relationships? In such a dark, hopeless time a spark of hope is retained by the citizens of Saint Malo, especially those joining the resistance. Where did you see hope and renewal in the novel?
“Nearly every species that has ever lived has gone extinct, Laurette. No reason to think we humans will be any different!”
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” Madame Manec in chapter 84.
How does Madame Manec embrace the feeling of being alive? Who resists her change? In time, Etienne joins in the resistance as he reads off the messages on the radio in the evening. How is each representative of being more alive?
In a profile in the Atlantic, Jean Vanier talks about “a heart that is not filled with fear,” as an important aspect of being fully human. Does this resonate with you? What does it mean to you to be fully alive?
In his Op Ed in the New York Times Oliver Sacks writes, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour”every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”
How is this line of thinking similar to Madame Manec and how is it in opposition to her action in the face of death? Which is closer to your perspective when you come to grips with the finite aspect of life?
Here are a few quotes that jumped out when I read. What quotes stuck with you?
“the little radio with its four terminals and trailing aerial sits motionless on the floor between them all like a miracle.”
“open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever.” from a recording created by Marie-Laure’s grandfather.
When eating peaches observing they are like "A sunrise in his mouth.”
"Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the was was memory falls out of the world."