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review 2015-05-15 08:57
Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See is a modern day existentialist novel. A book in the tradition of Dostoevsky, although that may not be obvious right away.


The title alludes in different ways to the juvenile main protagonists of the novel, Marie Laure and Werner. For Marie Laure, the allusion is more literal. She is blind, from a congenital vision disorder. Nurtured by a loving father, she sees, not with her eyes, but with her ears, her nose and her fertile imagination.


For Werner, an orphan and part of Germany’s World War II youth indoctrination program, the allusion is more figurative and a little more complex. He chooses to be blind to the destructive effects of war because the program promises a way out of the coal mines―his inevitable future, asserted orphanage officials.

These two characters meet only at the end, but in so many ways, they are connected from the beginning. By time, if not by place. By their youth. By their intense need to know. By their extraordinary gifts. Finally, they meet as kindred spirits, drawn together by an illegal radio broadcast that cuts through prejudices and stereotypes, suspicions and enmities that divide people.

You cannot think of this novel in terms of a sweeping plot with several subplots. All the individual stories carry about equal weight, if not equal appeal: Marie-Laure moving through and surviving the war; Werner curbing a role in the war using his native gifts for electronics; the trajectory of the Sea of Flames diamond and the search for it by an obsessed German officer desperate to believe it would cure his decaying body; the healing of Marie-Laure’s great uncle, traumatized by his experience in the previous world war.

The setting for the story, the catastrophic event of the second world war, fits the meditative mood of the narrative. The characters live inside their heads a lot, not only about what they’re experiencing (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling), but also about what those experiences mean, what each individual life really means. The prose flows effortlessly and images are vivid. The novel reminds me of Terence Malick’s atmospheric, meditative war film, The Thin Red Line.

Ultimately, though, what I took away from the book is the author’s view of what life is all about, woven into the many themes of the novel and often expressed in the musings of characters. You feel the author throughout the story, editorializing about events, characters, scenes, time. For example:

That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?

Four years of occupation, and the roar of oncoming bombers is the roar of what? Deliverance? Extirpation?

To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?

The book is rich with such passages. A book to be read and savored more than once. As I intend to do and as I did with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamasov. Timeless and unforgettable.

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review 2014-12-01 01:17
Shadow of the Wind
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Shadow of the Wind. I’ve puzzled over this title. Technically, a wind would not have a shadow. Or, maybe, it does; but we need a sixth sense to see it. If so, this title is the best anyone could give this novel, although I must confess, I did not feel that way until I got almost towards the end of the book, 358 pages later, to be precise. I found my initially strong interest waning and actually nearly lost about 300 pages into the book. I put it aside and wondered if I’d pick it up again.

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona...

Spanish writer: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Barcelona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, there was something about the beginning of the novel by Carlos Ruis Zafon that intrigued me. It hints at a mystery. But more than that, the novel is multi-layered, from the story within a story to the layers of subtext about life, about people, and about books of fiction and our relationship to them.

So, I picked it up again. I am glad I did. This novel reminded me once more of the ways in which fiction could be great. And why I read it. This is one of the best I have come across in a long time and yet, I cannot necessarily explain why. Greatness is probably impossible to understand and explain, anyway. If I read it a second time, I’m likely to find something in it I did not see before; or I might interpret the book differently.

One could see Gothic elements in the story, both in its plotlines—mystery, menace, obsessive romance—and, occasionally, in the style of narration. But, even in its translation to English (from Spanish), that sprinkling of Gothic seems to be thoroughly appropriate to the tale that is told. And it is told, not shown: You do not get a narrative of events as they unfold. What you get are recollections by people the narrator seeks out in his search for truth. This method served me quite well, at first, but it became increasingly frustrating to the point where I found myself reluctant to go back to it after setting it aside for the night.

My estrangement from the book lasted for some time. And yet, when I finally did finish reading it, I was awed by how engaging and masterfully written this book was.

Shadow Walk

Shadow Walk

The story within the story spans several decades from circa 1919 to 1955 and emerges from the quest of the narrator who, as a boy of ten immediately after the second world war, is allowed to choose one, and only one, book from a place called Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He selects Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, an unknown author. The choice is not at all fortuitous, as it will turn out. The book so intrigues the boy that he wants to find more books by the same author and, of course, to learn as much as he could about him. (Strikes a chord?) Here is, in fact, where the book begins as a story within a story.

This obsession by the youthful narrator continues into adulthood to about ten years later when most of the puzzles he comes across in his quest are understood, if not tied together. The enlightenment begins on page 359 (print copy) with the telling shifted to a female character who knew Julian intimately.

Impatient souls might balk at having to wade through so many pages first before the truly exciting part but this is where you begin to feel, in your bones, the greatness in this book. And you might find yourself eagerly devouring the remaining 150-some pages.

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

At the Summit of Tibidaboo

You also realize why the first 358 pages are important. They present the characters in the story (about Julian) within the story (the quest) of the narrator. Not only are these characters useful devices for the telling, they also work up your anticipation for the remainder of Julian’s tale. But probably more than those reasons, you see the ravages of time on these characters—ravages that, in one form or another, descend upon all of us, if we live long enough. Thus you see: This story within a story is ultimately about time, about how each person’s life spins across it; how events beyond our control can propel lives forward into a miserable existence; how time wreaks its havoc and memories are all we’re left of past time. In those dark wet days in Barcelona, in the shadow of fascism, a civil war, and a world war, misery visits nearly everyone; and time is unkind to them.

But this is also a story of hope. Hope that infuses three love stories: Obsessive and tragic between Julian and his Penelope (allusions to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey?); fresh and audacious between the young narrator and his Beatriz (allusions, perhaps, to Dante’s Beatrice?); and mystical and poignant between the author Julian and the narrator.

The last connection is the type that occurs between kindred spirits and reveals itself fully to the narrator only towards the end. It invites interpretations of reincarnation; or, maybe, it merely alludes to cycles of life repeated across time.  As repeated in the story of the narrator, so like Julian’s.  As it may be when  the narrator’s story comes to a full turn and he takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The novel ends in a phrase, by now full of meaning: “their steps lost forever in the shadow of the wind.”

Source: margaretofthenorth.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/carlos-ruiz-zafons-shadow-of-the-wind
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