The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
T. S. Eliot
What was intended to be a summer read turned out to be an early winter read – very appropriately because this is a book about light and darkness, perfect for Advent and the darkest time of the year. In All the Light We Cannot See we see the world through the hands of a blind woman, Marie-Laure. As a child she is given a model of her world which helps her to feel her way in spite of all the light she cannot see. In telling her story, Anthony Doerr, is putting a model into our hands to remind us how complex life is and to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail.
Anthony Doerr has spun for us a hopeful story that is full of humanity. Besides the blind girl, there is an orphaned German boy who becomes a radio technician. The setting is the Second World War which so divided and devastated Europe. Their lives don’t cross till later but Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together in brief alternating chapters.
With the rise of populist politics as expressed in the Brexit referendum and elsewhere, it seems that we are again in a dark age (and the book is a startling reminder of the institutions that have grown up in post-war Europe which so far have preserved peace – it would be stupid and careless if this were to be unpicked). There is a lot of darkness as we don’t know where we are heading. There is a lot of light that we cannot see as we turn ourselves inwards.
There is so much light we cannot see – from the past and into the future. But in the hands of a blind girl the author has placed a model which can help us through to the light we cannot see. The model maker is her father – significantly a locksmith. I say significantly because of these lines by poet Malcolm Guite in response to one of the Advent antiphons:
Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.
Julia McGuinness has also written about this book. She captures the ideas of light within limited spaces which is so much part of this story set in the extremes of human existence.
Part of my work is to support newly ordained clergy. One of the cheesy things I do is write to those who have been recently ordained, just before Christmas. I say something like:
Happy first Christmas to you as a “priest”. I hope you enjoy your first Christmas celebrations. It is a wonderful moment – embracing strangers/visitors. One of the ideas that came to me (when I was struggling to find yet another homily in a busy Christmas season) was a play with the word “manger”. Pronounced the French way it’s about eating. Pronounced the Christmas way it’s where Jesus is born. Do we prepare a manger with the hands we offer for the bread? Is this when Jesus is born? As we place the bread in the hands of others, are we laying Jesus in their manger?
When we take the bread into our hands, into the manger we prepare, we take all the light we cannot see. This is the body of Christ, the light of the world. This is the faith we have as Christians, a faith that in the darkest times there is all the light we cannot see. The light that shines in the darkness, makes a difference as to how we recognise one another, how we see one another, how we see our past, how we see our future – as not so dark as maybe we once thought. This too, like Marie-Laure’s model, is something so small that is placed into our hands, to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail, in places we would never look into because of their depth of darkness.
Besides preparing a manger with our hands, we often put our hands together to pray (like a candle flame), and we often close our eyes (as if a reminder of the darkness). There are all sorts of reasons for these customs – but in our heart of hearts we know that there is all the light that shines in darkness. By praying we witness to the true light that gives light to everyone.
At the end of his magnificent novel, Doerr imagines:
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 electro-magnetic waves travelling into and out of Michael’s (game) machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more criss cross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of emails, vast networks of fibre and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from transmitters with cellular transmitters in them, commercials … flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m gong to be late and maybe we should get reservations? … and ten thousand I miss yours, fifty thousand I love yours, 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 charred 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 encore of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.
I am imagining it. I am imagining the map Doerr has drawn of some of the light we cannot see.
I can’t wait to read this again.