I have a confession to make. At the end of last year, I resolved not to read any books, fiction or not, about WWII. I had had my fill of the trials and tribulations of the Nazi period.
So how did I spend this most recent holiday season? Reading All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr's historical novel set against the backdrop of -- you guessed, it, WWII. And I am very glad I did.
At over 500 pages, this novel is more a tome than a book. Having taken a decade to write, Doerr provides a stunning and stirring story of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German recruit, Werner, who serves Hitler's Youth war machine. Their lives intersect in an overlapping tapestry of tragedy in France and Germany with all the human emotion and historic perspective a good novel can bring.
Even without video or audio, certain books have the power to assault your senses. In this one, the novelist paints bitter, biting details of war on his canvass in searing colors from the blacks and reds of Nazi banners to the dab olive greens of uniforms. There is also a lot of steely gray and white snow.
The novel opens in 1944 at dusk with leaflets falling from the sky as America enters the fray. "They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses...and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars." From there, the clock turns back to 1934 and the run-up to Hitler's rise to power as the main characters begin their respective journeys through the hell of preparing for war--with gory, frightening sights and sounds crashing through each page. Even before the gun are fired mercilessly there is "creaking ice, villages burning in forests, nights where it becomes too cold even to snow. There is shelling and the shattering of broken lives. "Teacups drift off shelves. Paintings slip off nails...The roar becomes loud enough to separate membranes in the middle ear."
Doerr is unrelenting in his depiction of WWII. The angry whistle of trains is like a musical score beating beneath the words. It becomes impossible to read All the Light We Cannot See without coming to grips with the sheer physicality of traditional war -- the ashes and ammunition, tanks and turrets, bombs and bullets and the shiny belts and buckles of uniforms. Black, polished shoes and heels tap sterile floors and muddy boots litter battlefields and marshes.
Doerr manages to make you see, hear, and to taste war. It is metallic and foul. Everything in this book has an odor of burning smoke from trains, factories, and fires. You feel the dust and debris. You hear the shards of glass falling into streets. There is a constant cold, damp rain. You never escape the distant din of boots and the clatter of rifles or chains creaking through childhood dreams. The reader endures piercing explosions, unrelenting bombardment, and unending love. Yes, there are gentle reprieves but only amidst the roar and rubble of war and destruction and the smell of sweat and evil.
All the Light We Cannot See, reminds us that war is dirty, disgusting. "Werner slices the sausage on his plate to find pink worms squirming inside." While Marie-Laure is hiding in an attic, "bats cry almost inaudibly" and two horses gone mad with fear, kick through the door of the garage in which they've been shut and gallop between the smoldering houses on the Grand Rue." Frostbite take the eyelids of one German soldier as mice and lice litter the battlefields...great tangled coils of barbed wire... everywhere the reek of corpses."
By the end of the novel, the reader is exhausted and depleted. Germany has been defeated. There is destruction, devastation, and a long trail of haunting memories stretching across countries.
The novel ends in 2014. The blind French girl, Marie-Laure, has grown old and gray. "Beneath her fingernails, the frost makes billions of tiny diadems and coronas on the slats of the bench, a lattice of dumbfounding complexity." In a final and sardonic chapter, Marie-Laure's grandson is playing a war game on his computer. "I am dead," he tells his grandmother. "In the game?," she asks. "Yes," he answers, adding "But I can always being again." With that, Marie-Laure listens to her grandson's footsteps as he kisses her and goes on his way. "Until all she can hear are the signs of cars and the rumble of trains and the sounds of everyone hurrying through the cold."
As we approach 2015, I find myself, again, making my list of New Year resolutions. This time I will not ban any book or theme from my nightstand. I resolve to accept reader recommendations and share a few of my own.
As for WWII, I now understand that we are never going to be completely over with it. It can always begin again.
Tara D. Sonenshine is former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. An avid reader, she is a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.