All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot SeeBook Review

Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Imprint: Scribner
Published: 2014
Pages: 544
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0456-5
Stars:  4.0

I am not usually drawn to novels set during World War II.  Maybe it’s because I am half German, and have no desire whatsoever to read anything about Hitler, particularly now that we are living in a political climate fuelled by a buffoon dictator just south of the border, in 2017. I do, however, love stories set in Paris, which is why I decided to give this book a try, although it was also enthusiastically recommended to me by my good friend Deborah Ledon who did not steer me wrong with her last recommendation.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, is a work of art in more ways than one.  Each short chapter is like a photograph come to life, filled with colour, texture, and light, revealing one image, a small piece of the story. Doerr’s prose is so beautiful that we cannot put the book down for wanting to experience, with all of our senses, that next piece of the story. And all of our senses are heightened as we do.

The book begins on 7 August 1944 as Germany is bombing France, or more specifically, Saint-Malo, France, as a 16-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a table at Number 4 rue Vauborel, holding a model of the city in miniature. She knows every centimetre of the model by touch and has memorized its street names. She can hear the bombers, who are three miles away, approaching Saint-Malo.

“Five streets to the north, a white-haired 18-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum.” He is in the Hotel of Bees, a once cheerful address where Parisians would stay on weekend holidays. Werner is in the building when bombers brandishing high-velocity anti-air guns known as 88s start to destroy everything in the vicinity of the hotel. What, we wonder, could possibly happen next?

Compelled to turn the pages of each short chapter, we study them as if they are photographs on exhibition in an art gallery. As we move through each chapter in the first 90 pages of the book, a ten-year history of these two main characters is revealed in snapshot after snapshot.

We learn about the curse of an ancient blue diamond containing a touch of red at its center, known as the Sea of Flames. The 133 carat diamond has been locked up in a cleverly disguised vault in the basement of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Marie-Laure’s father works as the principal locksmith.

We also learn that Werner was raised with his sister Jutta, in a Children’s Home in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex near Essen, Germany by a kind woman named Frau Elena, and that young Werner, who has a love of science, also possesses a knack for repairing radios, which may just save him from having to work in the coal mines like all of the other 15-year-old boys in the region.

Sergeant Major Reinhold Von Rumpel, a gemologist before the war, now works for the Reich. It is his mission to find the Sea of Flames for the Führer for his proposed empyrean city in Linz, Austria, at the center of which he plans to build a kilometre-long museum filled with the greatest treasures in all of Europe and Russia.

The author flips us back and forth between what is happening to Marie-Laure and what is happening to Werner from 1934 to 1944, his exquisite writing moving with the pace of a suspense thriller. And then he starts to weave in the story of Von Rumpel and we slowly discover how all three characters’ lives will intersect.

Werner’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is recruited by the Reich – who force 14-year-old boys to train for their Machiavellian purposes – always weeding out the weakest, with unbelievable cruelty, while staying focused on building their superior Aryan race. Werner is small, sensitive and very smart and he dreams of becoming an engineer. He tries with all his strength to hold onto those dreams as the grim realization of his situation becomes evident and he slowly understands just how evil the force that he has had to follow and support really is.

By the time I read half of this novel, my guts were gripped by the horror of how vicious human beings can be and I cried as I was reminded that although we earthlings have endured two World Wars, so many of us don’t seem to have learned anything from them as the current political state of affairs in much of the world can attest to.

However, it is the indestructible optimism and resilience of the spiritually strong, like Marie-Laure,  who give us hope that things can change for the positive in the future. When one’s will to live is as strong as hers, there may be no limit to what we can endure. However, the price we pay for surviving the struggle is steep.

By the time I read half of this book, I was filled with sadness. This is not the type of book I should be reading as throughout this winter I have struggled with stress and depression. I read on because I had to know what happens to these characters in whom I had become deeply invested. There has to be some light at the end of this literary tunnel, some redemption, joy even. After all, the title is All The Light We Cannot See…but by page 400 there is still no light.

By the time I had almost finished the book, I could barely read the last 50 pages because of the ugly, depressing, soul-destroying events that occur page after page in relentless succession. Surely there can be no light in reliving this dismal history? I understand Doerr’s metaphors and by the end of the book I could see the light he refers to in the title, but that light just didn’t shine brightly enough to make me feel that reading this book was a gift and something that I shouldn’t have missed out on. The novel has its share of beauty and light, to be sure, but the cold, hard facts of what people endured in World War II at the hands of a fascist dictator are definitely not something I ever want to relive in a story, of any kind, ever again.

The Time In Between by Maria Dueñas

BOOK REVIEW
Title: The Time In Between
Author: Maria Dueñas
Publisher: Atria Books
Released: November 2011
Pages: 624
ISBN-10: 1451616880
ISBN-13: 9781451616880
Stars: 3.0

A book could have all the rave reviews in the world from prestigious sources (as this one does); it could have a beautiful, stylish jacket, an author who is a PhD, and be set in countries that you have an interest in, and still not be what you expected it to be.  This is the case for me with The Time In Between by Maria DueñasSimon & Schuster Canada generously gifted me with an advanced reader’s copy of this bulky, literary spy novel because after I read its synopsis, I really wanted to read it.

The Time In Between by Maria Duenas is an international bestseller that spans the Spanish Civil War to World War II. This beautifully spun novel tells the story of a seamstress who rises to become the most sought after couturier and an undercover spy who passes information about the Nazi regime to the British Secret Service through a secret code stitched into the hems of her dresses.

The Time In Between is one of those rare, richly textured novels that, down to the last page, has you hoping it won’t end. Written in splendid prose, it moves at an unstoppable pace. An exceptional debut, it is a thrilling adventure through ateliers of haute couture, the glamorous elite, political conspiracies and obscure secret service missions blended with the unhinged power of love.”

The fact that it took me over two months to read and I seldom found myself wanting to make time to finish it is definitely not a good sign.  I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way about the book because it certainly has an interesting storyline and I enjoyed the section that was set in the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco (Tetouan) very much.  However, I just didn’t really connect with the main character, Sira Quiroga, because she felt quite restrained and lacking in passion for life and love and that’s not how I expected to feel.  She evolves from a being an uneducated young woman who is foolish in love, to a self-doubting, fearful entrepreneur, to a confident, globetrotting secret agent.  I pictured her as Angelina Jolie: someone who is beautiful to look at, interesting for a while, capable of acting fragile or tough, and then you just get sick of her.  Perhaps some of her character traits didn’t translate well from the original Spanish (Daniel Hahn translated), but I found it hard to really empathize with her or understand why she would decide to become a spy for the British when she didn’t seem to have any real understanding of what was going on in her own homeland of Spain nor in England during World War II at the time that she became a spy.

The novel begins in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War with a young, naïve Sira about to marry a “modest government clerk” after knowing him for only a few weeks.  She works as a seamstress with her mother in a local dressmaker’s shop that services a distinguished clientele.   As she is considered a girl with no professional expectations, it makes sense to her to marry Ignacio and become a wife and perhaps later, a mother.  But she doesn’t really love him and it doesn’t take long for her to be completely swept off her feet by a smooth-talking, tall, dark and handsome typewriter salesman named Ramiro who she meets when Ignacio convinces her that she should learn how to type and takes her shopping for a typewriter.  Sira quickly breaks Ignacio’s heart when she leaves him for Ramiro.

Sira’s mother, who had raised her as an only child on her own, introduces Sira to her father, a wealthy engineer and foundry owner named Gonzalo Alvarado, who is married and has two sons from whom he is estranged.  Gonzalo is worried about the state their country is in under Franco’s dictatorship and fears for his life so he decides to put his affairs in order and acknowledge his daughter by giving her an inheritance consisting of boxes of family jewels.  He convinces Sira that she must leave Madrid for Morocco where it will be safe and although her mother refuses to join her, Ramiro goes willingly to Tangiers, and later, unsurprisingly, deceives Sira by leaving her and stealing her family jewels.

Alone and unable to pay her hotel bill, Sira flees to Tetouan with next to nothing, only to be apprehended by Commissioner Claudio Vázquez who then decides to help her get back on her feet so that she can repay her debt, by putting her in the care of a street smart boardinghouse owner named Candelaria.  Candelaria the Matutera (the Smuggler) is one of my favourite characters in the book because she has a large, fearless personality to go with her heart of gold.  She doesn’t always operate on the right side of the law, but she’s a survivor who is willing to help those who are less fortunate and will do whatever it takes to keep food on her table and the authorities off her case.  It’s not long before Candelaria and Sira embark on a dangerous, exciting adventure that leads to Sira being able to set up her own dressmaker’s shop where she suddenly finds herself making clothes for wealthy Nazi’s wives and meets a mysterious blonde British waif named Rosalinda Fox.  Rosalinda is involved in an extramarital affair with Spain’s high commissioner in Morocco, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Luis Beigbeder and they (who were in fact real people) are responsible for recruiting Sira for a life of espionage.

I was quite transfixed with the story up until this critical juncture.  Sira’s friendship with Rosalinda presents a pivotal turning point in her life.  Dueñas’ narrative prose is exceptional and historical research thorough.  The story moves quite quickly in Part One and is still captivating in Part Two (Tangiers in the 1930s) where we meet another interesting character named Félix who becomes a good friend to Sira.  However, as the plot becomes more about politics and espionage, the characters who are introduced are unsympathetic and tedious, with the exception of Marcus Logan, but even he isn’t allowed to be truly remarkable until the very end and by then I just didn’t care.

A lot more occurs in The Time In Between, but I won’t give away the entire plot.  It’s full of twists, turns and individuals whose lives later intersect.  By Part Three, Dueñas started to lose me and from there on it took me a long time to finish reading the book.  In Part Four, Sira, now using the name of Arish and pretending to be Moroccan, departs for Lisbon to try to infiltrate a textile distributor named Manuel Da Silva who is in business with the Third Reich.

So in contradiction of Simon & Schuster’s synopsis, I found myself wishing the book would end because it moved from the second half on at a sluggish pace and I didn’t find much emphasis was put on the power of love at all.  This is not a love story but rather the story of a gifted seamstress who discovers that she has what it takes to be a great spy, in spite of the people she cares about.  This is just my opinion.  A Nobel Prize Laureate loved it so I think you’ll have to decide for yourself.