Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Air a Library: A Pre-Sunday Sentence from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This post contains spoilers for those who haven't read All the Light We Cannot See.  You've been warned.

I considered saving this selection from Anthony Doerr's novel, All the Light We Cannot See, for tomorrow's Sunday Sentence, but decided against that because:

      a)  It's a long paragraph full of more than one sentence;
      b)  I already have a good candidate for this week's SS.

As you already know, All the Light We Cannot See is one of my favorite books of the year--a novel which I savored slowly and finished, with a sigh and a smile, a few days ago.  For three weeks, I lived in Saint-Malo, in Paris, in the barracks at a Nazi Youth training camp, in the bomb-rubble beneath L'hotel des Abeilles (the Hotel of Bees).  I watched a blind 13-year-old girl named Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne build a secret passageway behind a wardrobe in order to keep the giant radio transmitter in their attic hidden from invading Germans.  I was there with young Walter Pfennig as he was recruited to join the Nazi party--initially dazzled by patriotism, but then increasingly disillusioned.  I watched, breath-held, as Doerr gradually brought the two teenagers together, bound by the sound of Marie-Laure's voice on the radio reading passages from Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  And then, in the final pages of the novel, I came across this incredibly beautiful paragraph which is set in 2014--decades after the main action of the plot--when Marie-Laure is an old woman taking a walk in Paris with her grandson Michel.

Before I get to the "sentence," however, here's a little background on Doerr's original inspiration for All the Light We Cannot See, a novel which is built on the magical mystery of electrons carrying noise particles through our atmosphere:
In 2004, I came up to New York City, went into Penn Station, and the man in front of me started complaining about the reception on his cell phone. We're eighty feet underground, he's bashing on his little device, and I'm thinking, "What you're forgetting, mister, is that this is a beautiful miracle--you're talking to somebody very far away with this little transmitter and this little receiver in this device, and all around us this electromagnetic radiation is carrying messages. And that's kind of an amazing thing." So when I started this book, I wanted to capture the magic of hearing the voice of a stranger in a little device in your home. Because for the history of humanity, that was a strange thing. I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story to him over a radio.
And now here's that paragraph which comes as a linguistic crescendo at the end of the novel....

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak.  Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more.  Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.  And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths?  That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings?  That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?  They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.


  1. thanks for your great review. I believe it's going to be my most favorite historical fiction audiobook of the year. I will be posting my own review this week

  2. Beautiful, beautiful... Reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer (huge compliment)!!!!