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Love note to: All the Light We Cannot See

December 28, 2022

c/o Anthony Doerr

Dear All the Light We Cannot See,

I was so excited to read you. Having read Doerr’s Memory Wall and Four Seasons in Rome, I couldn’t wait to see how his gift for detail would come through in a novel—and one with your scope, at that. (I heard you took him ten years to write!)

What interested me the most was his choice to write about a blind girl as one of the main characters. In everything I’ve read of Doerr’s, he relied so much on visual description. How was he going to stretch himself to rely on the other senses?

Well, he did it. And as much as I enjoyed his short stories and his travel memoir, this book was the most powerful; the descriptions so vivid I could not only see, but taste and smell and touch and hear.

“To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.”

“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. Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of eagles. 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.”

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

In fact, there was so much to love about the theme of blindness, not only from the rich imagery coming from all of the senses, but from its metaphorical richness, helping us see everything invisible, everything that reaches beyond our sight. Starting with light itself.

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

“Electricity, Werner is learning, can be static by itself. But couple it with magnetism, and suddenly you have movement—waves. Fields and circuits, conduction and induction. Space, time, mass. The air swarms with so much that is invisible! How he wishes he had eyes to see the ultraviolet, eyes to see the infrared, eyes to see radio waves crowding the darkening sky, flashing through the walls of the house.”

“Open your eyes, and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

Of course, the metaphor reaches far beyond light. Being set during World War II, one of history’s darkest times, you paid attention to what could only be seen with the heart—the great potential for human kindness, and the role of art in reminding us who we really are.

“Werner guides the tuning pin back and forth.

Static, static.

He is about to hand the earphone to Jutta when—clear and unblemished, about halfway down the coil—he hears the quick, drastic strikes of a bow dashing across the strings of a violin. He tries to hold the pin perfectly still. A second violin joins the first. Jutta drags herself closer; she watches her brother with outsize eyes.

A piano chases the violins. Then woodwinds. The strings sprint, woodwinds fluttering behind. More instruments join in. Flutes? Harps? The song races, seems to loop back over itself.

“Werner?” Jutta whispers.

He blinks; he has to swallow back tears. The parlor looks the same as it always has: two cribs beneath two Latin crosses, dust floating in the open mouth of the stove, a dozen layers of paint peeling off the baseboards. A needlepoint of Frau Elena’s snowy Alsatian village above the sink. Yet now there is music. As if, inside Werner’s head, an infinitesimal orchestra has stirred to life.”

I was confronted not only with the sometimes-hidden kindness of people in general, but also with my own. So clever, you made your main characters children—alternating moments with the child who we might see as “victim” with the child who we might see as “perpetrator.” I never got to see anyone outside the context they were born into, and so I never got to make the mistake of labeling them as “good” or “evil,” as if that label was an inevitable part of them.

“‘Do you ever wish,’ whispers Werner, ‘that you didn’t have to go back?’

‘Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.’

‘Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do all of this if not to become who we want to be?’

A stillness in the room. Out there in the trees beyond Frederick’s window hangs an alien light.

‘Your problem, Werner,’ says Frederick, ‘is that you still believe you own your life.’”

“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”

Then the world starts in on us. I cried when you said it, and at so many other times. Your characters are so rich, so wonderful to know. Just as in life, there are no minor ones. As bleak as parts of our time together were, I wanted to live in your world and know the unshakeable beauty that no eye can see.

Thank you for the gift of knowing you. You have made my life more poignant in every way.

—Sarah Avenir

In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: