Tag Archives: blindness

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

book cover

The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Marie Laure LeBlanc is a teen who had gone blind at age 6. She and her father, Daniel, fled Paris ahead of the German invasion, arriving in the ancient walled port city of Saint Malo in northwest France to stay with M-L’s great uncle, Etienne. His PTSD from WW I had kept him indoors for two decades. They bring with them a large and infamous diamond, to save it from the Nazis. Daniel had made a scale model of their neighborhood in Paris to help young Marie Laure learn her away around, and repeats the project in Saint Malo, which is eventually occupied by the German army.

Werner and Jutta Pfennig are raised in a German orphanage after their father is killed in the local mine. Werner has a gift for electronics, and is sent to a special school where, despite the many horrors of the experience, his talent is nurtured. He develops technology for locating radio sources, and is rushed into the Wehrmacht to apply his skill in the war. His assignment brings him to Saint Malo, where his path and Marie Laure’s intersect.

book cover

Anthony Doerr

There are three primary time streams here, 1944 as the Allies are assaulting the German-held town, 1940-44, as we follow the progress of Werner and Marie Laure to their intersection, and the 1930s. We see the boy and the girl as children, and are presented with mirrored events in their young lives that will define in large measure the years to follow. Werner and Jutta are mesmerized by a French radio broadcast, a respite from the anti-Semitic propaganda the government is broadcasting. The Professor in the French broadcast offers lectures on science, and inspires Werner to dream of a life beyond the orphanage.

Open your eyes, concluded the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

As her father is the head locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Marie Laure has the run of the place. She spends a lot of time with a professor there, learning everything she can about shells, mollusks and snails.

Dr. Geffard teaches her the names of shells–Lambis lambis, Cypraea moneta, Lophiotoma acuta–and lets her feel the spines and apertures and whorls of each in turn. He explains the branches of marine evolution and the sequences of the geologic periods; on her best days, she glimpses the limitless span of millennia behind her: millions of years, tens of millions of years.

Both Werner and Marie Laure are enriched by teachers and books as they grow. No nuclear families here. Marie Laure’s mother died in childbirth. The Pfennig children lost their remaining parent when father was killed in the mine.

The author, in a video on his site, talks about the three pieces of inspiration that provided the superstructure for the novel. While 80 feet below ground in a NYC subway, a fellow passenger was griping about the loss of cell service. Doerr appreciates the beautiful miracle that is modern communications. At the start of the book I wanted to try to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story. A year later he was on a book tour in France and saw Saint Malo for the first time. Walking around this beautiful seaside town, a walled fortress, the beautiful channel, the green water of the channel breaking against the walls and I told my editor, “look how old this is. This medieval town’s so pretty.” He said, “actually, this town was almost entirely destroyed in 1944, by your country, by American bombs.” So I started researching a lot about the city of Saint Malo immediately and knew that was the setting. That was where the boy would be trapped, listening to the radio. The third piece arrived when Doerr learned that when the Germans invaded, the French hid not only their artistic treasures but their important natural history and gemological holdings as well.

The story is told primarily in alternating Marie Laure’s and Werner’s experiences. But there is a third stream as well, that of Sgt Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a gem appraiser drafted by the Reich to examine the jewels captured by the military and collect the best for a special collection. He becomes obsessed with finding the Sea of Flames, the near mythic diamond Daniel LeBlanc had hidden away. He is pretty much the prototypical evil Nazi, completely corrupt, greedy, cruel, as close to a stick-figure characterization as there is in the book. But his evil-doing provides the danger needed to move the story forward.

There may not be words sufficient to exclaim just how magnificent an accomplishment this book is. Amazing, spectacular, incredible, moving, engaging, emotional, gripping, celestial, soulful, and bloody fracking brilliant might give some indication. There is so much going on here. One can read it for the story alone and come away satisfied. But there is such amazing craft on display that the book rewards a closer reading. In addition to a deft application of mirroring in the experiences of Werner and Marie Laure, Doerr brings a poet’s sense of imagery and magic.

Marie-Laure’s experience of the world is filled with shell, snail, and mollusk experiences and references. Some are simple. During a time of intense stress, she must live like the snails, moment to moment, centimeter to centimeter. In a moment of hopeful reflection, these tiny wet beings straining calcium from the water and spinning it into polished dreams on their backs—it is enough. More than enough. You will find many more scattered about like you-know-what on a beach.

I knew early on that I wanted her to be interested in shells. I’m standing here at the ocean right now. I’ve always been so interested in both the visual beauty of mollusks and the tactile feel of them. As a kid, I collected them all the time. That really imbued both “The Shell Collector” and Marie with, Why does the natural world bother to be so beautiful? For me, that’s really embodied in seashells. I knew early on that I wanted her to find a path to pursue her interest in shells. I think that fits — I hope that fits — with visual impairment, using your fingers to identify them and admire them. – from the Powell’s review

Werner’s snowy white hair alone might stand in for the entirety of the visible spectrum. (although it is described as “a color that is the absence of color.”) The dreaded prospect of being forced to work in the mines in a literally coal-black environment, the very antithesis of light, offers motivation for Werner to find another path, and coal itself offers a balance for that other form of carbon that drives Marie Laure’s father out of Paris, the one that embodies light. While black and white are often used in describing Werner’s environment, the broader spectrum figures large in his descriptions.

Werner liked to crouch in his dormer and imagine radio waves like mile-long harp strings, bending and vibrating over Zollverein, flying through forests, through cities, through walls. At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.

A nice additional touch is Marie Laure’s reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It permeates the tale as her reading echoes events and tensions in the real world of the story.

Also avian imagery is a frequent, soulful presence. A particularly moving moment is when a damaged character is reminded of a long-lost friend (or maybe a long-remembered fear?) by the presence of a particular bird associated with that friend and the time when they knew each other.

There are substantive issues addressed in this National Book Award finalist. Moral choices must be made about how to respond when darkness seeks to extinguish the light. There are powerful instances in which different characters withdraw into their shells in response to evil, but others in which they rage against the night with their actions. Thoughtful characters question the morality of their actions, as dark-siders plunge into the moral abyss. Sometimes the plunge is steep and immediate, but for others it is made clear that innocence can be corrupted, bit by bit. The major characters, and a few of the secondary ones, are very well drawn. You will most definitely care what happens to them.

As for gripes, few and far between. There is a tendency at times to tell rather than show. Marie Laure may be too good. That’s about it. There are sure to be some who find this story too emotional. I am not among them.

Just as Werner perceives or imagines he perceives an invisible world of radiowaves, All the Light We Cannot See enriches the reader with a spectrum of imagery, of meaning, of feeling. You may need eyes to read the page, ears to hear if listening to an audio version, or sensitive, educated fingers to read a Braille volume (please tell me this book has been published in Braille), but the waves with which Doerr has constructed his masterwork will permeate your reading experience. They may not be entirely apparent to your senses the first time you read this book. They are there. Whether you see, hear or touch them, or miss them entirely, they are there, and they will fill you. All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling novel. When you read it, you will see.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and FB pages

Definitely check out Doerr’s site. And if you are wondering what he had in mind, specifically, with the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility. – from Doerr’s site

Interview by Jill Owens for Powell’s

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for free on Project Gutenberg

Here’s the wiki page for Saint Malo

An interesting article on the damage done to Saint Malo in the 1944 battle

A page on the surrender of Saint Malo, from the site World War II Today
World War II Today

Here is a link to a nice, large panoramic shot of modern Saint Malo, far too wide to include here

2/11/2015 – The long list was announced today for The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and NonFiction and All The Light We Cannot See was on it.

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

book cover

Close your eyes and imagine the basso sound of voiceover icon Don LaFontaine intoning, “In a world gone mad…” and that is pretty much where Bird Box begins. Open your eyes and go mad. Kill others, yourself. Can you keep from peeking? For how long? In Josh Malerman’s post-apocalyptic, eye-opening scare-scape, something happened. An invasion? Some natural phenomenon? No one is really certain. But what has become clear is that anyone who steps outside with their eyes open goes insane, not just gibbering or confused, but violently and destructively, homicidally mad.

In the near-future today of the story, Malorie is a young mother, with two small children in her charge. She has been training them for over four years, to hear, with a sensitivity and acuity more usually associated with flying mammals. They embark on a river journey to what she hopes is a safe haven, twenty miles away, blindfolded. Any noise could be someone, or something following them. She must rely on the skill she has rigorously drilled into the boy and girl every day to help guide them, and alert them to danger. And we must wonder if the destination she aims for will offer relief or some version of Mistah Kurtz.

Chapters alternate, mostly, between the river journey and Malorie’s back story. We follow her from when The Problem began, seeing death and destruction in first a few isolated locations, then spreading everywhere, seeing loved ones succumb, then finding a place to live, a refuge, with others, and watch as they cope, or fail.

In horror stories, it helps to have an appealing hero. I am sure most of us have seen our share of splatter films in which the demise of each obnoxious teen is met with cheers rather than with dismay. The other sort is of the Wait until Dark variety, in which our heart goes out to the Audrey Hepburn character beset by dark forces. Bird Box is the latter type. Malorie is a very sympathetic character, an everywoman trying her best under ridiculous circumstances, more the Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) of Nightmare On Elm Street or the Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Halloween, than the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of Alien, but Malorie does what she must to survive and to prepare with patience and diligence to sally forth against the unknown.

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Author image taken from Fearnet.com

Malerman was bitten by the horror bug as an early teen:

My big introduction wasTwilight Zone: the Movie, the first horror movie I ever saw. After that came Saturday Shockers and sneaking in whatever I could at a friend’s house (Faces of Death, Psycho… Blacula…Prom Night.) I was also reading a lot. There’s a great period of horror fiction history, before the novel-boom of the 70’s spearheaded by Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, in which the short story ruled the genre. That period is golden and completely bursting with ideas. I read M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, Bierce, et al. When you first approach it, the genre, it feels infinite, but it’s not. So, come high school, I was trying to write my own scary stories, weird poems, strange tales. (from Detroit CBS Local news interview)

He likes to write with horror movie soundtracks on. And he is a musical sort as well, singing and playing in the band The High Strung. In fact, fans of Shameless, on Showtime, have already been exposed to Malerman’s work, as the writer and performer of that show’s theme song.

The dynamics of the house-full of refugees in the back story will feel familiar. Who to let in, or not, concerns over sharing limited resources, discussions over what adventuresome risks might or might not be worth taking re looking toward the future, or in trying to learn more about the cause of their situation. One might be forgiven for seeing here a societal microcosm, but I do not really think this was what Malerman was on about. He does offer a bit of a larger, thematic view though, tied to the central image of the book, which definitely adds to the heft of the story. A wondering at more existential questions

She thinks of the house as one big box. She wants out of this box. Tom and Jules, outside, are still in this box. The entire globe is shut in. The world is confined to the same cardboard box that houses the birds outside. Malorie understands that Tom is looking for a way to open the lid. He’s looking for a way out. But she wonders if there’s not a second lid above this one, then a third above that.
Boxed in, she thinks. Forever.

You really want Malorie to reach safety with the children, but there is a gauntlet to be run, and there is no certainty that any of them will make it. The dangers are human, natural and eldritch, and I mean that in a very Lovecraftian way.

You will definitely not want to put Bird Box down once you pick it up. This is a very scary, and gripping novel. If you are reading on the train, you may miss your stop. If you are reading at bedtime, you will definitely miss a few winks, and might want to sleep with the lights on after you finish.

I think some horror authors are trying to scare you, but with me, I’m as scared as the reader is of the story. I’ve always been that way, since watching the Twilight Zone movie — watching Firestarter when my parents were out, or sneaking out to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s house because I couldn’t watch it at my house. That makes you doubly scared — of the movie, and of the possibility of Mom finding out. (from Metrotimes interview)

A generic problem I have with the book is that the dark elements here sometimes tend to step back when they have decided advantages, failing to make the most (or worst as the case may be) of their positions. It was not obvious to me that there was some point being made by these unexpected choices. Nevertheless, Malerman takes the notion of the unseen and pushes readers to create the scariest thing of all, that which lurks in the imagination.

It is not at all dangerous to see how much fun this book is. Usually it is considered a good thing to think outside the box, but in this case it is clearly a far, far better thing that Malerman has done his thinking inside one.

Posted on GR November 19, 2013

Pub date – May 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Interviews

Huffington Post
Detroit CBL Local News
Metro Times

JM on FB
The High Strung on FB

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Reviews