Over the past few months, I’ve been learning more about science, whether its wanting to know about the processes that create the fall colors and the history of constellations, or why prayer and meditation have profound effects on the brain. I’ve been working my way through Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience and my mind is just blown by the power of nature, all that we know, and all that we don’t. I wasn’t expecting All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr to layer into this exploration, but reading it made me want to look closer and pay more attention–to both the natural world as well as the human mind and experience.
This is a story about two young people on opposite sides of the front in World War Two. Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris for Saint-Malo, a French coastal town, to stay with family they haven’t seen in her lifetime. Werner, who lives at an orphanage in a mining town with his sister after the death of their father, is recruited for Hitler Youth after showing a proclivity for science and radio. Their stories intertwine over the course of the story as they each face the challenges, both inner and outer, that the war brings into their lives.
Doerr’s lyricism fuels the tone of the story and sets up the the reader as contemplator. It is written non linearly, the way memories come to mind and expresses what is most deeply human: longing, fear, power, love. The way these characters observe the world makes me want to look more closely and be amazed, and reminded me of the Mary Oliver quote hanging in my apartment: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. I loved these characters because they were fascinated by the world–and the natural wonders of the world provided a hope for them as the war seemed to pull everything apart:
“What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models… None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes.”
Werner, deeply troubled by not just the war, but his seeming inability to do what he knows is right. As a young soldier seeing the ocean for the first time he writes to his sister: “I have been feeling very clearheaded lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads…It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”
Marie Laure, blind at six, who grew up at the Natural History museum where her father worked: “The grotto itself comprises its own slick universe, and inside this universe spin countless galaxies: here, in the upturned half of a single mussel shell, lives a barnacle and a tiny spindle shell occupied by a still smaller hermit crab. And on the shell of the crab? A yet smaller barnacle. And on that barnacle?”
This book made me want to go out an seek the intersection of the natural world and my sense of humanity: the universe and the brain and the atom. Of course, I live in the constant tension that an urban lifestyle brings to this pursuit, but I suppose it’s the tension that makes it interesting.
(A side note: Powell’s Books interviewed Doerr and it made me want to write fiction and read all of his books. He touches on the poetic nature of the story and why the structure is designed to help the reader along with it, which I thought was brilliant.)