Before Tony Doerr's new novel arrives, I wanted to reread "All The Light We Cannot See," his previous novel, published in 2014. This time, I read it slowly, only a few chapters a day--ten or fifteen pages--enjoying the elements of a well-told story. For any who are not familiar, it takes place during the Second World War and focuses on two characters, a young French girl named Marie-Laure, who is blind, and a young German boy named Werner, who is an orphan. Their formative years are shaped by caring adults. Marie-Laure has a devoted father who gives her the confidence that allows her to go forth in the world bravely and securely. He does this by creating wooden models of their neighborhood that his daughter can learn, first with her fingers, and then with her footsteps in the outside world.
Werner grows up in an orphanage for children whose fathers have perished in the local mines. It is run by a French woman who is able to create a loving home that nurtures Werner's uncanny skill building radios. On one of his homemade models, Werner and his sister, Jutta, listen to science lessons broadcast from France, a man's kind and patient voice explaining the workings of the world in phrases that will become touchstones of comfort, rolling through Werner's mind far into the future.
During the siege of Saint-Malo, a coastal town the Germans have secured, the paths of these now grown children finally cross. Werner, wearing the Nazi uniform, but an ambivalent soldier at best, rescues Marie-Laure and discovers the broadcasting equipment stored in the attic of the tall, narrow house that has been in Marie-Laure's family for generations. He learns that it was her grandfather he and Jutta listened to.
It is this believable intersection of time and place that seems to be where the narrative, all along, has been taking us. But for Marie Laure, the hours with Werner are only one memory dwarfed by others, and the novel's timeline, we discover, goes far beyond this remarkable coincidence.
"All The Light We Cannot See" offers many pleasures, but I want to talk about two in particular. On the macro scale, the narrative design is wholly suited to the novel's purpose. It moves back and forth in time, building both dread and anticipation, and on the micro scale, the sentences, describing either interiority or action, peel open the characters' sensory experience at every step. Metaphors are infrequent, but when they appear they are pointed and effective. Here is Werner searching a radio dial for allied broadcasts of Nazi movements: "....it's like reaching into a sack full of cotton and finding a razor blade inside, everything constant and undeviating and then the one dangerous thing, so sharp you can hardly feel it open your skin" (335). When he hears Marie-Laure's brave broadcasting of music from her grandfather's old equipment, it awakens his imagination: "Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand--what sounds like three hands, four--the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed" (407). The cords of his soul not yet severed.... The reader has been watching Werner's moral disintegration, but this moment of self-reflection is when, at last, he throws off the Nazi yoke and rescues, and then falls in love with, Marie-Laure.
Why did Doerr choose to write this novel in the present tense? And why did he create short chapters and a narrative design that not only moves back and forth between two protagonists, but back and forth in time? My speculation is that it allows him to create an illusion of simultaneity. And why is that important? Well, it allows the reader to see how the characters' lives as children determine who they will become as adults. This is true for all of us, of course, but a novel offers the clarity real lives never have. We see how they are guided by what they learned as children, but more to the point, by who they loved. Werner loved his sister Jutta, a girl who possessed a stronger moral compass than he did. She asserts herself in his imagination frequently, her disapproving presence forcing him to examine his actions. Marie-Laure loved the missing father who appears frequently in her imagination, giving her confidence. And the illusion of simultaneity, created by the layering of time, reproduces the fragmentary and vivid experience of life.
Though Werner and Marie-Laure are trapped in the dramatic events of the nineteen forties, they serve only as context and backdrop. What the novel prefers to chronicle is the growth of conscience within Werner, the growth of courage within Marie-Laure. These are quiet developments. We're not at the front, or in battles, thankfully. Doerr whittles the drama of wartime down to a couple of objects: this is clever, interesting, and most importantly, with the changing scenes and constancy of the present tense, a tense that erases the grammatical markers of time, they quickly orient us to place, character, and time period. So, when a new section opens with the lumbering Opel truck, we know we are with Werner in 1944; when it opens with a loaf of bread, we are likewise in Saint Malo with Marie-Laure.