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All the Light We Cannot See
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2014 Book Discussions > All the Light We Cannot See - Whole Book Discussion [Spoilers] (November 2014)

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Terry Pearce This topic is for discussion of the book which potentially includes spoilers... don't read if spoilers would spoil it for you, if you haven't got to the end yet.


Terry Pearce Some questions to kick you off, but of course feel free to ask your own or to discuss anything about the book:

1. Discuss how the radio plays a major part in the story and the time period. How well do you find yourself able to relate to the power and wonder of radio, reading as someone in today's internet age?

2. The narration moves back and forth both in time and between different characters. How did this affect your reading experience? How do you think the experience would have been different if the story had been told entirely in chronological order?

3. Whose story did you enjoy the most? Was there any character you wanted more insight into?

4. When Werner and Jutta first hear the Frenchman on the radio, he concludes his broadcast by saying “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever”, and Werner recalls these words throughout the book. How do you think this phrase relates to the overall message of the story?

5. There are various references to the visible spectrum and what lies outside of it; how do you feel this links to the events of the story? Why do you think the title was chosen and how does it summarise or explain the book?


Terry Pearce These two reviews are interesting in that they both find the novel flawed, but in very different ways, one almost because of the prose and one despite it:

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/10/3104598...

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014...

The novel has been very highly spoken of in many quarters. How did you find its various elements [prose, structure, style, etc.]? How well did they gel for you? Did you have some that you preferred to others?


Lacewing Terry wrote: The novel has been very highly spoken of in many quarters. How did you find its various elements [prose, structure, style, etc.]? How well did they gel for you? Did you have some that you preferred to others?

The fairy tale framing absolutely made it for me, bringing both fairy tales and recent history into the same field of view, to their mutual benefit. I already enjoy narrative prose poetry quite a lot, and this reads like an epic version.

I didn't even notice the time jumps, and as far as I know (ha!), I was never confused.


message 5: by Lily (last edited Nov 01, 2014 11:31PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Lacewing wrote: "The fairy tale framing absolutely made it for me, bringing both fairy tales and recent history into the same field of view, to their mutual benefit...."

Lacewing -- would you say a word or two more about "fairy tale framing"? I haven't read the reviews for this book and haven't really thought of it from a fairy tale perspective, although I have as using some lovely poetic prose passages, or at least often a poetic sense in the language, the metaphors, and the images.

I did find the sequencing confusing, but eventually it worked for me. (Often, I am jarred by stories told out of time sequence. Here, if it jarred, ultimately it seemed necessary to the story telling.) Now, I am looking forward to revisiting and thinking a bit about why Doerr chose the ordering he did. Some of it does seem like what is written about memory these days -- memory is what brings past, present, and future into the now.


Lacewing Lily, after Chapter Zero (effectively a preface), in Chapter One we're told how the girl learns the curse of The Sea of Flames. In the next section, the boy and his sister talk about the mine as cursed. Next up is the curse of orphanhood. Then her world is given to her as a toy with locks for her to discover. Jules Verne gets a starring role.

So, there's this blend of adult stories with children's stories. Throughout my reading, I was able to stay close to the magic. Next to last page: "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was a memory falls out of the world. / We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs."

Memory, yes. I suspect there's an associational priority. Perhaps he created the story that way, just jotting down scenes and images as they occurred. And left some of that in place. I sensed/imagined at some point that he must have written many, many more words than we've been given. That, too, I think, contributes to the aura, that we can't quite see all of it . . . Oh, duh; look at the title! Only just now put that part together.


message 7: by Lily (last edited Nov 22, 2014 06:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Lacewing wrote: "Lily, after Chapter Zero (effectively a preface), in Chapter One we're told how the girl learns the curse of The Sea of Flames. In the next section, the boy and his sister talk about the mine as cu..."

Thanks, Lacewing! You just told me something about how I read!?!

Next to last page: "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was a memory falls out of the world. / We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs."

Very much part of the language of the story that I think of as poetic.

Memory, yes. I suspect there's an associational priority.

I hadn't thought of that. Will consider it when I look at the structure this time through. (Have just ordered and downloaded the ebook -- hope to be able to borrow a hard copy, one is easier for quotations, the second for flipping through and back and forth. I read AtLWCS first on a library ebook loan -- I see that my purchase has those highlights. Halloween-like spooky, even though I knew Amazon promised such. Just hadn't done it previously.) AtLWCS is a book called to my attention as well by a respected leader of writing groups, so she has helped me be attuned to the writing as much as to the story.

Perhaps he created the story that way, just jotting down scenes and images as they occurred. And left some of that in place. I sensed/imagined at some point that he must have written many, many more words than we've been given.

Despite not having gone review hunting, I do recall reading that Doerr spent some ten years writing this book. Ala Tartt's The Goldfinch? But certainly lots of things must happen to a story/book when composed over such a long period of time.

That, too, I think, contributes to the aura, that we can't quite see all of it . . . Oh, duh; look at the title! Only just now put that part together.

I like your take on title analysis. Another statement I've caught, but not pursued, was that the title alludes to the many, many WWI-II war stories still not told -- and perhaps only now is there enough distance to allow ourselves to see (more of) them.

I appreciated the links back to WWI though Marie-Laure's agoraphobic great-uncle Etienne. This is Europe, not America, but Doerr's poetic ambiance reminded of Fitzgerald's famous line "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." ( The Great Gatsby ending.) Crassly put: we fight against war and it returns again and again.


message 8: by Lily (last edited Nov 02, 2014 12:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Has anyone here in this discussion read 1998 Nobel-laureate José Saramago's Blindness ?

I have not, but have been curious as to whether Doerr probably both has and has been influenced by it in writing AtLWCS. I have little sense of what might or might not be relevant.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Lily wrote: "Has anyone here in this discussion read 1998 Nobel-laureate José Saramago's Blindness?

I have not, but have been curious as to whether Doerr probably both has and has ..."


I have read Blindness but cannot say I see anything in All the Light We Cannot See that would make me think that it was influenced by Blindness.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Terry wrote: "How did you find its various elements [prose, structure, style, etc.]? How well did they gel for you? Did you have some that you preferred to others? "

Terry, this is an excellent question. I had no problem with the prose. I was a bit disenchanted with the structure, as the moving back and forth in time would ocassionally be irritating. But, I appreciate the tension created by leaving a character in a dicey situation. It make it hard to stop reading because I wanted to know what happened. I also haven't made up my mind about the last few chapters that take place so many years later. They were almost like an epilogue and I find myself wondering whether they enhanced or distracted from the story.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Terry wrote: "1. Discuss how the radio plays a major part in the story and the time period. How well do you find yourself able to relate to the power and wonder of radio, reading as someone in today's internet age?"

I listen to the radio (the local public radio station) more than I watch TV and typically have it on in the background when I work and read. So I'm a big fan of radio and loved how Doerr used it in the story.

Two primary uses of the radio in the story were the spreading of propoganda by the Nazis and the relaying of coded information by the Resistance. There was the spellbinding effect of the classical music (especially for Volkheimer, showing us that he was more than a killer) and of the science explanations that Werner and his sister fell in love with. And, of course, Werner's skill in understanding how radios worked that saved him from the mines and led him on another path that I think he would have preferred not to take.


message 12: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 68 comments Terry wrote: "The narration moves back and forth both in time and between different characters. How did this affect your reading experience? How do you think the experience would have been different if the story had been told entirely in chronological order?l..."

I was utterly absorbed when reading this book. But now that I've been away from it for a few weeks something is niggling me, just slightly, and caused me to drop a star in my rating. I think this discussion will help me to organize my thoughts... reading this question, Terry, got me thinking.

To be clear, I think his prose is gorgeous and I felt this to be an incredibly accomplished story. But while the devices such as movement between time and characters kept me engaged while reading, they contribute to a feeling of melodrama / overwriting that has lingered.

I had a similar experience with The Goldfinch, I fact, which I gave a knee jerk 5 star rating to and then went back to adjust to a 4. I don't know what this says about me as a reader...perhaps I get swept up in lush writing but then on reflection feel it was too much style over substance? I'm not sure.


Maureen | 124 comments Linda wrote: "Lily wrote: "Has anyone here in this discussion read 1998 Nobel-laureate José Saramago's Blindness?

I have not, but have been curious as to whether Doerr probably both..."


I also have read Blindness, but I did not see any influence in this novel by Doerr.


message 14: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 68 comments Lily wrote: "Has anyone here in this discussion read 1998 Nobel-laureate José Saramago's Blindness?

I have not, but have been curious as to whether Doerr probably both has and has ..."


Lily, I've read Blindness (quite a while ago) but I don't see any connection whatsoever - aside from the blindness! Saramango's 'blindness' is disorientating and terrifying - the symptom of a futuristic virus. But I'd be interested to hear other views!


Maureen | 124 comments Linda wrote: "Terry wrote: "How did you find its various elements [prose, structure, style, etc.]? How well did they gel for you? Did you have some that you preferred to others? "

Terry, this is an excellent qu..."


I also found the ending disappointing. It seemed forced, contrived, and it didn't think it hung well with the rest of the novel. I think there is supposed to be a message about time changing things, and people forgetting even the most traumatic periods in history, but even that message did not hang well with the rest of the novel in which Doerr created highly identifiable, sympathetic characters in whom as a modern reader, I invested my emotions, hopes, and fears.


message 16: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 68 comments Terry wrote: "Whose story did you enjoy the most? .."

Overall, I took the most from Werner's story. This is probably due to it being one of, if not the most developed.

When I think back now the most significant thing I took from this book was the perspective it gave me of the war from a German youth point of view. I have read a lot from the point if view of the allies. But to try to start to understand how ordinary people in Germany perceived and in some cases, participated in atrocious acts, was truly illuminating. The scenes of Werner's training / schooling were utterly terrifying to read. But they helped me to see a different perspective.


message 17: by Lily (last edited Nov 02, 2014 06:08PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments I'm still trying to figure out the time sequence implications/purposes of the novel. Here is the stripped sequence. Now I'll have to take a look at the back and forth, unless I find someone who has already done the analysis:

Part Zero: 7 August 1944
Part One: 1934
Part Two: 8 August 1944
Part Three: June 1940
Part Four: 8 August 1944
Part Five: January 1941
Part Six: 8 August 1944
Part Seven: August 1942
Part Eight: 9 August 1944
Part Nine: May 1944
Part Ten: 12 August 1944
Part Eleven: 1945
Part Twelve: 1974
Part Thirteen: 2014

Just three days in August are interspersed with other periods. I wonder what happens if one reads those three days in sequence. I may try that. (The Amherst method of writing teaches taking pieces of text and rearranging them. I wonder if Doerr used such a technique. Or how did he come to his structure. I don't believe I have ever read a book this short with so many chapters. Is there an interview where Doerr talks about his writing process?)

I agree with Jen that there is a certain amount of sense of overwriting (as perhaps with Tartt). But that happens for me with Proust and Joyce, too. So I can't make that an automatic demerit anymore -- more a challenge to comprehension? (And I don't know if those are figures with whom I should be making comparisons of Doerr. Perhaps this is closer to Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses?) Or maybe if I didn't know Doerr had spent ten years writing it....?


message 18: by Lily (last edited Nov 02, 2014 05:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Jen wrote: "...The scenes of Werner's training / schooling were utterly terrifying to read. ..."

And the futility of his sister's efforts to extricate him.

If we think again of the title and the long search to understand how ordinary, decent people got trapped or trapped themselves into some of the horrific acts associated with war, it seems that this is another story that provides light on the topic (of evil -- whatever that is?), but rather more from the perspective of the attempts, sometimes futile, sometimes successful, sometimes thwarted, for bits of good/decency/... to prevail. Or am I being pompous to see the story thusly? Still, in his perhaps overwrought prose, Doerr has brought me to feeling this is where he had been exploring -- and struggling -- to bring this story to light. (Hannah Arendt, of course, famously wrote of the banality of evil. But somehow that has never seemed comprehensive in exploring what happened to and for decent people -- or who at least so intended.)


message 19: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Maureen wrote: "Linda wrote: "Lily wrote: "Has anyone here in this discussion read 1998 Nobel-laureate José Saramago's Blindness?

I have not, but have been curious as to whether Doerr..."


Maureen, Jen -- thank you for your comments on Blindness. I am now back at about ground zero in understanding the metaphor of blindness that Doerr has given us. I was hoping for clues.


Terry Pearce Jen wrote: "To be clear, I think his prose is gorgeous and I felt this to be an incredibly accomplished story. But while the devices such as movement between time and characters kept me engaged while reading, they contribute to a feeling of melodrama / overwriting that has lingered."

I agree with this entirely. In fact, by the end of the main section, I had started to want the book to be shorter because I'd become impatient, I think mainly with this feeling. I also wonder if this was buttressed by my initial impressedness with the prose tipping over into wondering if it was overwrought, sometimes, and distracted from the story. Early on I had been enjoying the book the way I might enjoy a four-star or even a five perhaps, but by the end it was a firm three for me.


Terry Pearce Maureen wrote: "I also found the ending disappointing. It seemed forced, contrived, and it didn't think it hung well with the rest of the novel. I think there is supposed to be a message about time changing things, and people forgetting even the most traumatic periods in history, but even that message did not hang well with the rest of the novel in which Doerr created highly identifiable, sympathetic characters in whom as a modern reader, I invested my emotions, hopes, and fears."

Interestingly, I found the epilogue/ending to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. Freed from the plot and structure and the focus around the events that led to that day in August, it seemed to have space to breathe, to flow at its own pace, to be reflective and allow me space to draw my own conclusions.

In general, I found that on a number of occasions I felt as if I was being told too much, and left too little to do for myself, and the ending was the part that made me feel this way the least.


Terry Pearce Lily wrote: "Perhaps this is closer to Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses?"

It's funny, I had also been thinking of it in comparison to Out Stealing Horses, but for me because of what I see as stark contrast. For me, Out Stealing Horses has a simplicity of prose, and a life-like messiness of plot. I didn't find this with ATLWCS... the prose was sumptuous in many places, but by the end I was often finding it too much so, and the plot seemed more neat than I'd have liked it.

By the way, I'm realising that all of those three comments (like my review) seem a little negative in tone. I did enjoy the book, and I think there are many worthwhile things about it... I guess I just expected more, from the reviews, and from my early impressions. I loved some of the radio broadcasts, and the early life of Werner in particular, as well as the ideas around the model of Paris and her blindness. But it was as it wore on that the prose seemed too thick, like a sweet thing you've eaten a little too much of, and the symmetry and organisation of the plot seemed to to some extent tyrannise the novel.

It always interests me when I feel less positive about a book than a lot of people, especially people whose opinions I respect... it happened with 'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena' here, and in fact 'Kafka on the Shore' (although it was a long time ago I read that and I've forgotten most of the book, so I won't be participating in that discussion). My response is the polar opposite of those who say 'the emperor has no clothes' and try to convince everyone else that there's no quality there (that response *really* annoys me, and I've spent longer than I really should have arguing with reviewers that took this tack about authors). Instead I try to see what I might have missed, or learn more about what it might be about me that caused me to see things differently. I'm hoping for some of that from this discussion.


Terry Pearce Interesting quote from Doerr about the short chapters and lyricism:

My prose can be dense. I love to pile on detail. I love to describe. I'm much more reluctant to give the reader entrance into a character's feeling than describe what's around him or her and have the reader intuit the internal life of a character. I know that's demanding, so this was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It's like I'm saying to the reader, "I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here's a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism."

(Thanks to Linda for the link, on the non-spoiler thread).


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Lily wrote: "I'm still trying to figure out the time sequence implications/purposes of the novel. Here is the stripped sequence. Now I'll have to take a look at the back and forth, unless I find someone who h..."

Lily, I posted a link on the other thread to an interview with Doerr that addresses many of the questions you raise in this thread, as Terry notes in Message 23.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Terry wrote: "3. Whose story did you enjoy the most? Was there any character you wanted more insight into?"

This is a response to the second part of the question. A character I wanted more insight on was Volkheimer. He seemed to be a very decent young man - perhaps an example of the typical soldier, regardless of side, who fought for his country. He did not seem to buy into the cruelty but did not rock the boat. We only see glimpses of what I thought of as the real Volkheimer - playing the music, protecting Werner, etc - and then to find that he survived. He seemed so lonely in 1974. I wanted to know his story.


message 26: by Lily (last edited Nov 03, 2014 05:15AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments How discouraging it must be as a writer to have poured a considerable part of ten years into a novel and then to have it labeled at "over-written." Is it really, or is it a long prose poem, or....? I.e., what do we mean as readers by "over-written" beyond picking up on a vague feeling put into words by a clever critic? What other books do we consider overwritten?


message 27: by Lily (last edited Dec 15, 2014 06:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Terry wrote: "Lily wrote: "Perhaps this is closer to Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses?"

It's funny, I had also been thinking of it in comparison to Out Stealing Horses, but for me because of what I see as st..."


I meant as a book/writer of a calbre with which this book ought to be compared. I consider Proust/Joyce "great or classic," Doerr and Petterson not yet qualifying for that appellation? I would call OSH as definitely "cleaner, more spare, stark." But both do capture for me some of the horror of what WWII and a history of what war does to a people.

Henry James wrote that he doubted America could be as "innocent" after the Civil War. (He apparently tangled philosophically with Emerson on the feasibility of new starts.) Yet, these years later many of us in the U.S. are almost totally ignorant of what war on home ground is like. I suspect for many in Europe, even after a full generation, that is not quite so true. Both these books (Per & Doerr) speak of such to me.


message 28: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 68 comments Lily wrote: "How discouraging it must be as a writer to have poured a considerable part of ten years into a novel and then to have it labeled at "over-written." Is it really, or is it a long prose poem, or....?..."

Yes, I agree Lily, and it isn't a kind choice of words on my part. I don't mean it as a negative comment in the sense that it is not an 'error' or negative on the author's part, but simply something about the style of writing that felt 'too much' for me. Your 'poetic' label works better.

I mention here that I had a similar issue with The Goldfinch, and I agree with Terry's earlier mention of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. These are both books where the style is heavily poetic, lyrical, etc.

I should clarify that I absolutely adored the prose in all three of these books. But with each (less so with Constellation), when I stepped away and thought back about the books, the plot or story did not stick with me as much as I'd hoped. I remember certain scenes vividly, but I'm not left with a clear sense of a story. And this is the basis for my comments and my reason for finding that the 'balance' between the various elements of story and writing is not quite perfect, for me.

But lush and beautiful language, no question, in each of those books.


Terry Pearce I think 'overwritten' is a potentially valid adjective. You could of course soften it with synonyms, but I think it has meaning. Whether it applies in any individual case is a matter of taste of course, but for me personally, I get the feeling of something being such when the description itself begins to detract (for me) from the moment being described; when the language seems 'worked' beyond the point that would have been just right for me in terms of describing that scene, is more ornate than I want and becomes too much of the focus in and of itself.

It's an interesting debate because of course it is entirely taste, but I see some parallels in other fields... you could talk of overacting and draw parallels... some might disagree on whether someone was overacting or in fact was 'authoritative', or 'made the role their own', or acted 'with passion'.

Interestingly, while I do see many parallels between this book and the Goldfinch (particularly in terms of its plot-focus and tendency towards the dramatic), I adored the Goldfinch. I feel that it drew me in enough to overcome its flaws, and the language did not detract, for me.

Again, to stress that I don't want to make my opinions into a motion to call this book less than successful. If these ideas spark useful and interesting ripostes and/or developments, great. But if not, I am very happy with some people loving this book to bits. I could see why they might.


Terry Pearce I very much agree about Volkheimer. Let's be frank here, he was a murderer and an active Nazi. But somehow he was made to some degree sympathetic, and I wanted to understand him better. I think it's extremely interesting to consider a character capable of partcipating in great evil, while at the same time being capable of acts of kindness such as towards Werner throughout the book, most particularly towards the end. And the thought that he could live out a quiet life after the war. Does he deserve to be punished? Rooted out? Do his actions towards Werner's family go any way at all towards redeeming him? Can he be redeemed? It's very interesting. I would've liked more of the end section after the events of 1944, and I would've been happy to read about Volkheimer some more in terms of his later life.


message 31: by Lily (last edited Nov 03, 2014 01:52PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Jen wrote: "Yes, I agree Lily, and it isn't a kind choice of words on my part. I don't mean it as a negative comment in the sense that it is not an 'error' or negative on the author's part, but simply something about the style of writing that felt 'too much' for me. Your 'poetic' label works better...."

But you are not alone in applying the term "overwritten", Jen. And I can appreciate the feeling. Like here: (view spoiler) It is one I have towards just about every prose poem novel I have ever encountered, except possibly Eugene Onegin -- and I might feel the same if I were to revisit it. Certainly I felt elements of overwriting with Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet after a gap of almost fifty years between reads (not at all prose poem writing in the first place, but still heavy usage of metaphors and lovely language). On the other hand, Stoner gave that almost perfect spare, not overwritten at all, lean feel.

I listened today to a lecture on the artist Jackson Pollack. Among the points the lecturer was making was the extent to which his ~1950 work is about the paint, about the materials of which a painting is composed. She made a parallel with modern writing being examined critically as much from the word usage perspective as for the story telling. My mind jumped to our book here -- do those words apply? First reaction, they apply more to something like Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing , which sat on my TBR largely unread until the library really needed it back. But, still considering for Doerr -- balance between words, language, structure versus story. I am enjoying the discussion here on both aspects.


message 32: by Lily (last edited Nov 03, 2014 01:53PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Terry wrote: "...I think it's extremely interesting to consider a character capable of participating in great evil, while at the same time being capable of acts of kindness such as towards Werner throughout the book, most particularly towards the end. And the thought that he could live out a quiet life after the war. Does he deserve to be punished? Rooted out? Do his actions towards Werner's family go any way at all towards redeeming him? Can he be redeemed? It's very interesting...."

My reading thoughts had been more on can/how can individuals avoid getting caught in such evil when it permeates life all round. The tensions between Werner and his sister. How do we feel about Frederick? Did the father who built the elaborate miniature towns for his daughter knowingly send the diamond or paste diamond with Marie-Laure and into the home of a man still in recluse from WWI? From what inner resources came Etienne's choices to keep on transmitting?

But I like your question about what is the nature of redemption in circumstances such as these. Are there answers, or only deeper questions?


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Terry wrote: "I very much agree about Volkheimer. Let's be frank here, he was a murderer and an active Nazi. But somehow he was made to some degree sympathetic, and I wanted to understand him better. I think it'..."

Terry, perhaps because I'm in the middle of reading Redeployment by Phil Klay (one of the 5 books on the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction shortlist), I cannot think of Sargeant Volkheimer as a bad man. What I gleaned about him is that he was a soldier whose job was to take out the resistence's radio operations, as have US and other countries' soldiers in time of war. I did not perceive that Volkheimer went out of his way to treat anyone badly or to torture anyone or that he got enjoyment from killing. It is easy for me to say that Hitler and his cronies were evil and than many of those who carried out their orders enjoyed the killing, starving, and torture they inflicted, but I don't see Volkheimer as in that category.

Along that line, is the bombing and destruction of San Malo that involved a lot of civilian deaths. It reminded me of what I learned on my travels this summer with respect to the allied bombing of Dresden.

I think Doerr wanted us think about his characters as individuals challenged and shaped by the situations in which they found themselves. I wonder if I would have gone along as Volkheimer did, struggled as Werner did, or stood strong as Frederick did.


message 34: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Linda wrote: "...I think Doerr wanted us think about his characters as individuals challenged and shaped by the situations in which they found themselves...."

Quite agree, Linda. I was stopped cold several times by the irony Doerr threw in to heighten that awareness, e.g., "Three hundred miles away from Fort National, Reinhold von Rumpel’s wife wakes her daughters to go to Mass and contemplates the good looks of her neighbor who has returned from the war without one of his feet." (p466-7) How seriously did Doerr consider creating a small subplot of an affair?


Maureen | 124 comments Terry wrote: "Interesting quote from Doerr about the short chapters and lyricism:

My prose can be dense. I love to pile on detail. I love to describe. I'm much more reluctant to give the reader entrance into a ..."


Thanks for this quote from Doerr on his style, Terry. I enjoyed reading it.


Maureen | 124 comments I must say that Marie Laure and her father are among some of my most favorite characters in literature now that I have read this novel. Their relationship reminds me a bit of the sympathetic love between the young Liesel and her foster father in The Book Thief.

In terms of the title, All the Light We Cannot See, both of these novels show us the light that is difficult to see in humanity in the midst of the evils of WWII. I did not think about the similarity in these novels until now. I know The Book Thief is considered adolescent fiction, but I considered it to be very well crafted, so I hope no one minds me bringing it into the discussion.

Even Werner and his relationship with his sister demonstrate a light in the midst of darkness. They serve as a contrast to Volkheimer and other Nazi characters who seem totally inhumane.


Maureen | 124 comments Lily wrote: "Terry wrote: "...I think it's extremely interesting to consider a character capable of participating in great evil, while at the same time being capable of acts of kindness such as towards Werner t..."

Etienne's character is incredibly interesting; he results in being more developed than I expected since for so many chapters, he is one-dimensional as the recluse uncle. When he mustered the will to leave the house and go to the bakery, I was cheering him on. But Marie Laure and the danger she has been in is the catalyst fir his action. So he, too, shows us light, both in his caring for her as well as his resistance-activities.


Maureen | 124 comments Lily wrote: "Terry wrote: "Lily wrote: "Perhaps this is closer to Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses?"

It's funny, I had also been thinking of it in comparison to Out Stealing Horses, but for me because of wh..."


Thank you for the Henry James' quote and anecdote. It fits with my perspectives on the paradoxes in the title and the novel.


message 39: by Lily (last edited Nov 03, 2014 06:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Maureen wrote: "I know The Book Thief is considered adolescent fiction, but I considered it to be very well crafted, so I hope no one minds me bringing it into the discussion...."

Maureen --I'm glad that you did. I keep hearing good things about that novel. Sidebar: also have a couple of teenagers for whom need to select a gift book. This one has gotten on my candidate list.


message 40: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Linda wrote: "Lily, I posted a link on the other thread to an interview with Doerr that addresses many of the questions you raise in this thread, as Terry notes in Message 23..."

Linda, I will go read them. But I will encourage you -- and others -- to bring relevant quotations to this discussion. I know some think a book discussion should stick to the views of the persons doing the discussion, but I don't think this is a group to be intimidated by outside opinions. Probably more likely to treat as simply another voice. (I am periodically chastised for links provided that many will not have the time at the moment to pursue and will forget for later, so I write this a bit from that perspective.)


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Maureen wrote: "I must say that Marie Laure and her father are among some of my most favorite characters in literature now that I have read this novel. Their relationship reminds me a bit of the sympathetic love ..."

Maureen, I agree that the Book Thief addresses some similar themes to this All the Light You Cannot See - In addition to the relationship between Liesel and her adopted father, we have her family resist by hiding the young Jewish man. I liked The Book Thief better than All the Light You Cannot See and I don't think of it as YA literature in the mode of the John Green books. It is more akin, in my mind, to Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy - fill of adult themes but able to be enjoyed by young adults.


Terry Pearce I think perhaps I was a little harsh. Re-reading my comments now I think (a) they come across more harshly than I actually judged Volkheimer to be, and (b) reading back, I think i may have attributed more relish to him in his carrying out of tasks than the text actually contains.

I do think that redemption is needed, though, whatever the alternatives at the time (an amazing book on that theme is The Reader by Bernard Schlink). I think perhaps he is already looking for some redemption by the fateful day in August, which is perhaps why he acts as he does. Does Werner bring out in him something that nobody else does, perhaps?


message 43: by Maureen (last edited Nov 04, 2014 11:37AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Maureen | 124 comments Terry wrote: "I think perhaps I was a little harsh. Re-reading my comments now I think (a) they come across more harshly than I actually judged Volkheimer to be, and (b) reading back, I think i may have attribut..."


Terry, The character I think deserves the harsher judgment is Von Rumpel, the Nazi whose fatal tumor is eating him alive while he searches desperately for the authentic Sea of Flames to see if the myth is true, if he can gain eternity in spite of his physical affliction. And as he suffers, the pain turns him crueler, more selfish, more obsessed. The cultural phenomena of the Nazi war machine sanctions his cruelty, makes it seem, at least perhaps to him and those like him, that evil is good, that their cruel actions are worthwhile and are justified by their greater dream of the redemption of Germany and their people.

While Volkheimer is capable of showing some compassion, even if it is only to Werner, I never saw any compassion in Von Rumpel. It is the presence of characters like him that makes us desire redemption.

Therefore, while it don't particularly like the ending, I am sympathetic to the perspective that it cannot be the present, 2014, and people cannot forget. We must learn lessons from history, yet we cannot become so I obsessed with remembering that we do not move forward. The tension between living, truly living, and moving forward, yet not forgetting the suffering in the past is a basic human tension that most great literature addresses, even if the subject is not war.

Thank you for your thoughts.


Sandra | 114 comments I'm still reading but I'm wondering why a "master race" has no room for compassion? They were terrible even to their own people as in how the Hitler Youth was treated and trained.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2315 comments Terry, I believe Volkheimer may very well have been looking for some sort of redemption when he tracked down Werner's sister to give her Werner's long misplaced belongings. It reminds me of a story I heard at the Third Man Museum while I was in Vienna a month or so ago. The owner of the museum was telling us the story of his encounter (and eventual interview) of an American pilot who had bombed Vienna multiple times. The pilot, now in his 80's, was visiting Vienna for the first time since the war. He was sure he individually was hated by all Viennese because of the purposeful bombing of the heart of the city, after the military targets had sll been destroyed. In his interview you can hear how troubled he was about having done that -- not the military targets, but the non-military ones.

Maureen, I agree that Von Rumpel was not a very nice man, but I think he was more driven by greed than pure evil. Granted that those motivation probably overlap, but I think he was more interested in enriching himself (and staying alive) than helping create the master race. At the end, he wanted that diamond solely because of the fable that the person who had possession would not die. He was certainly a very immoral man, so perhaps calling him evil is appropriate.


Maureen | 124 comments Linda wrote: "Terry, I believe Volkheimer may very well have been looking for some sort of redemption when he tracked down Werner's sister to give her Werner's long misplaced belongings. It reminds me of a stor..."


Good point about Von Rumple, Linda. I disliked him so much, I may have I over-exaggerated his evil.


Sandra | 114 comments I have to say I don't think this book was "overwritten". I never felt like the descriptions were superfluous or show-offy. I never felt like, "blah blah blah get on with it already." Or in other words if you all here didn't call attention to that particular grievance, it would have never crossed my mind. Though, I have to admit being put off somewhat, at first, in the way the novel went back and forth in both perspective and time. It took a little while to get used to the short chapters and snippets of information doled out.

Ultimately, This was a well plotted novel as well as having good character development, something I personally need as a reader. For a story set in WWII Europe, it never felt gratuitous in the gory details, nor corny or cliched as some books using this backdrop can sometimes seem. I really enjoyed this one. I'd give it 4 1/2 stars. The ending seemed a little bit forced to me and frankly could have been left out all together. I don't necessarily want all the loose ends tied up neatly.


Terry Pearce Sandra, did you feel that the ending/epilogue tied up all the loose ends? I felt the opposite, that the main part of the book itself tied things up almost too neatly, and then the ending/epilogue left them nicely open-ended and unresolved. It felt to me more like real life, lives going on in a way that doesn't fit neatly into a story, feelings and relationships left open-ended. Did Volkheimer feel he was granted (or was he granted) absolution? Will Werner's sister ever be able to get over him properly? I thought it was more or less the best part of the book. Interesting how perceptions can differ so much.


message 49: by Sandra (last edited Nov 05, 2014 12:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sandra | 114 comments Yeah, I think it tied up all the loose ends. Or I always think about the movie Stand by Me when Gordy makes up an awesome story for his friends and tells it to them, ending it at what he felt was the logical point and his friend Teddy says "And then what?" Sometimes I don't want to know "and then what" and this book went ahead and told me anyway. I knew who got married, had kids, careers, lived for how long. Too much IMHO. But I guess it had to go on to make the reader wonder what DID happen to the diamond???

I don't know if Volkheimer necessarily wanted redemption. I think he viewed what he did in the war as his duty to his country, basically beyond his choice. I think he was able to close it up tightly in a part of his mind and move on. Now he lived a pretty simple and austere existence after the war, so maybe a part of him felt "guilty" and living the way he did WAS his restitution, but I think he sucked it up. What struck me is how guilty Jutta felt about Germany's war crimes. She, who definitely was not guilty in the least and just a victim herself, felt, when she went to France, that when people would hear her German accent they would judge her and treat her badly.


Sandra | 114 comments And also, I think the title alludes to the light (of goodness)inside of all of us that perhaps isn't apparent to everyone. Like Volkheimer, for example,... a cold blooded killer just doing his job, harbors a "soft side" a love and a feeling of wanting to protect the weaker creatures as in his protectiveness for Werner and quietly and carefully demonstrating how to fold a paper airplane for a small boy.


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