The power of radio: a review of “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-see All the Light We Cannot See is a historical novel by American author Anthony Doerr that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, tells the story of the coming of age of two children in the build up to and later outbreak of the Second World War in Western Europe.

There is the story of beautiful blind French girl Marie-Laure Leblanc who lives with her doting father in an apartment in Paris and loves reading, especially the adventure stories of Jules Verne.

Alongside her tale, Doerr narrates the story of  German boy Werner Pfenning, who grows up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a harsh coal mining town.

The war breaks out and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and the Nazis to live with her charismatic aunt Madame Manec and her reclusive uncle Etienne in their tall, narrow house in Saint-Malo, a walled French maritime town on the English Channel.

Over in Germany, Werner, a sensitive and kind boy, becomes old enough to be sent to work down the mines – a job which killed his father – but is saved from this fate by his ability to fix radios.

After skilfully repairing the radio of a Nazi commander’s girlfriend, Werner is selected to attend the elite Nazi academy, The National Political Institute of Education, where he receives formal training in electronics and helps create a gadget to locate enemy radio transmissions, but where he is also exposed to cruel Nazi ideology about the ‘master race’ and witnesses first hand its brutal methods.

Marie-Laure meanwhile must cope with the disappearance of her beloved father, who never returns from a trip to Paris, and learn to use the wooden model of Saint-Malo that he crafted for her, to help her navigate the streets of the walled town.

As the war heads towards it destructive conclusion and the Nazis invade Saint-Malo the two young characters are drawn closer and closer through the power of radio:  Werner, still only a teenager, has been drafted into the army, where his job as part of a truck unit that rumbles through the decimated countryside is to use the electronic device he helped design, to detect the locations of enemy radio transmissions (and eliminate the perpetrators); at the same time Marie-Laure collects bread from the local bakery with coded message for the French resistance baked into the loaves, that her uncle then reads out through a secret radio broadcast from the top floor attic of their home.

anthony doerr

Anthony Doerr

In an interview Anthony Doerr gave on Idaho Public Television he revealed that the title of the book, All the Light We Cannot See, referred to the invisible electro-magnetic waves that powered radio broadcasts during the Second World War and that today power things like mobile phones. (I thought it might refer the ability of a blind girl, to see the world vividly through her imagination).

Doerr says the idea to put radio at the heart of his story came to him about 10 years ago when he was on a train pulling into Penn Station in New York and a guy was getting more and more angry because his phone call kept dropping out.

“How did we get to the point that we took this technology for granted? …All this invisible light that carries messages. I felt we had forgotten what a magical thing that was,” he said.

In Europe during the war it was radio which had this magical power to connect people who were thousands of miles apart and which played a crucial role in the outcome of the war.

“When I was thinking about strategies for writing this book, all I knew was that I wanted to have a blind girl reading a book (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) over the radio to a boy,” Doerr says.

On a trip to France, he visited the beautiful town of Saint-Malo and says he was amazed to discover it had been practically flattened by American bombs and then restored almost brick by brick.

“I knew somehow the boy would be trapped and needing this radio transmission as some kind of life line,” Doerr said in the same interview.

He spent 10 painstaking years writing and crafting the complex book and was rewarded with it winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming a huge commercial success.

While it is a brilliant story with many memorable characters and a powerful message about bravery and human decency in the face of terrible circumstances , I was a little disappointed with Doerr’s decision to write it in short chapters that not only move back and forwards between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner , but also move back and forwards in time, between 1934 and the end of the war.

I found it created a disjointed rhythm and was sometimes confusing, requiring that I page back to see what period of time he was were referring to understand where I was in the sequence of events.

Also, at more than 500 pages, I felt it was unnessarily long and could have been even more powerful as a shorter book. While sometimes Doerr’s verbosity is warranted – he loves delving into how things work, the history of a minor event or character and delivering incredibly detailed descriptions – at times it feels overdone and rambling.

But, then again I am someone who likes the pared-down writing style of Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski and Carver so maybe that’s just me. Others readers may love luxuriating in all the detail: after all it is an epic tail stretched out over a vast canvas, indeed it has major Hollywood film written all over it.

As a follow-up, if you have not yet read it yet, I suggest Australian writer Anna Funder’s All That I am, also set during the Second World War, about a group of German refugees who flee to London to escape the Nazis.

 

 

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The incredible bravey of forgotten refugees: a review of “All that I am” by Anna Funder

all that i amI read “All that I am” by Australian author Anna Funder purely on word-of-mouth.

I’d been told and heard that this book was very good, but knew nothing at all about the subject matter, plot or characters.

The cover of the version I read shows a  woman in a red coat walking past what looks like the Reichstag in Berlin, her reflection a red blur on the wet pavement.

The story, as it unfolds inside the cover, is about a group of German refugees (all but one  are Jews) who are forced to flee their homeland when Hitler rises to power  in Germany in the early 1930s.

Not only are they Jewish intellectuals, but left-wing leaning and socialist – in complete opposition to all that the National Socialists (the Nazis) stand for.

They all manage to obtain refugee visas in London, where despite the constant and very real risk of deportation, they continue to do what they can to plant stories in the British press about Hitler’s plans for  rearmament and his viscious policies towards the Jews and others he deems undesirable.

The central plot of the novel is what happens to four characters, namely: Ruth Wesseman, a bohemian Jewess and intellectual married to non-jewish journalist Hans, Ruth’s cousin Dora, a firebrand, fearless pursuer of justice and freedom (the heroine of the novel) and Dora’s lover, the celebrated left-wing German playwright and agitator, Ernst Toller

There are two narrators: Ruth, now a frail old women in her nineties, but with all her mental faculties intact, who tells the story of her life in Berlin, London and Shanghai before immigrating to Australia in 1947 while recovering from a fall in a Sydney hospital; and the playwright Ernst Toller, living an agoraphobic, reclusive life in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York in 1939 who tells of his relationship with Dora Fabian, his one true love.

The novel moves effortlessly back and forth across timelines from the cake shops along Bondi Road to the Bohemian nightclubs of Berlin to an attic apartment in Bloomsbury in Central London and a terrace house in Hampstead.

They are all real people and Funder’s genius is to breathe life into their characters, relationships and pysches and like a detective piece together the story of what happened to them.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is its exploration of the lives of German refugees forging an existence in London.

This is the book’s central canvas – the secret, untold stories of people who lived under the very tenuous, conditional protection of the British government, a government not yet aware or perhaps not yet convinced of Hitler’s evil intentions and hoping  that appeasement might prevent war.

It is the brave acts of these refugees, who risk their own safety to connect with those still trapped in Europe and get their stories into the newspapers and public consciousness, which ultimately convinces Britain that war is the only route to peace.

What’s most shocking is how easily refugees fleeing persecution – despite the horrible fate that awaited them – could be sent back to Germany if British bureaucrats got word of political activities, in some cases colluding with Nazi operatives.

Such a fate befalls one of the colleagues of the four protagonists. A former German policeman, he is expelled from Britain for speaking out at a trade union convention, and his mistake is being heard by the wrong people.

Once the expulsion order is granted, an immigration agent is assigned to watch him until he is deported. His fate, severe beatings and a first-class ticket to the concentration camps, where he gets to clean the toilets.

The book also recounts the fate of Jews aboard the MS St Louis, a refugee boat that sailed from Germany to seek asylum in Canada and the USA in 1939. It’s fate is told through the eyes of Clara, a jewish refugee and secretary to Ernst Toller while in exile in New York. Her brother is aboard the ship as it remains moored just outside Havana.

Clara is transcribing Toller’s life story (and what will become his memoir), while he urges her not to give up hope as the fate of the MS St Louis remains uncertain. Eventually it is sent back to Europe, where a quarter of those onboard would later die in the concentration camps.

The refugee’s tale, as told by Funder, should resonate with readers in Australia or anyone fortunate to be living in a free country.

The debate about refugees, particularly those that arrive by boat, is such a political hot potato here, that most forget that these are real people’s lives we talk so glibly about and discuss as if they were not human at all – objects to be “processed” or “turned back”.

Upon reading ‘All that I am’ I did some background reading about all the characters in the book, especially the central character of Dr Ruth Blatt (Ruth Wesseman).

Funder was a friend of Ruth Blatt and was no doubt inspired to write about her life through the incredible story she told her.

Searching online, I came across Funder’s interview with Ruth Blatt for a radio broadcast on the ABC.

After you’ve read this gripping, moving story about heroism, bravery and what it means to be all that you can be, listen to the radio broadcast to hear Ruth Blatt tell her story in her own words.