Radio Waves

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr

Published 2014

Read Jan 2018

This wildly successful book (100 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List, Pulitzer Prize) is a somewhat puzzling book, evoking a range of disparate reactions from readers and reviewers.  I was compelled to read the book as part of my book club’s 2017-2018 season.  We waited for the clamor for the library copies to die down a bit and then launched into it.

The author provides three primary characters:  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the only daughter of the widowed keeper of keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris and who goes blind at age six; Werner Pfenning, an orphan who lives with his sister, Jutta, at an orphanage in Germany and exhibits great aptitude for engineering and building and repairing radios;  Von Rumpel, a German officer assigned to seek and obtain French treasures for the Reich.   The stories remain generally distinct until late in the novel.

The author tells the parallel stories of two children growing up in very different homes in very different circumstances.

Marie-Laure is well loved and protected by her widowed father and a frequent and charming figure at the museum demonstrating great appreciation for the natural science on display at the museum.  Her father provides her Braille versions of books including Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea which stimulates her curiosity of the sea. He also makes a miniature version of the neighborhood to teach her how to navigate her surroundings.  Once Paris’s invasion is certain, Marie-Laure’s father is asked to transport a diamond of great value, The Sea of Flames, or one of three fakes made of it (he doesn’t know which he has).  The destination of father and daughter is in flames when they arrive so they are forced to continue to his brother’s home in St Malo on the sea.  The father builds another miniature of their new neighborhood for his daughter and is then summoned back to the museum.  Unfortunately he is arrested and never returns, although the pair somehow exchanges a few letters over time. Marie-Laure draws her uncle out of his shell a bit (he’s still suffering from shell-shock from the Great War) and enjoys a warm relationship with the housekeeper.

Werner and his sister are housed at an orphanage.  They find a broken wireless set which Werner repairs and they secretly listen to broadcasts at night including one from a French professor who discusses science.   Unfortunately Werner faces a life in the mines once he grows up so he jumps at the opportunity to compete for a place at the National Polital Institutes of Education in Essen.  He wins a spot and takes it despite his sister’s objections.  He attends the school and withstands the physical and emotional ordeal of the education, including the wounding of his friend, Frederick, after he refuses to participate in a brutal tradition.  At age 16 he is told that he is now 18 and begins conscription — seeking radio transmissions by enemy supporters starting in Russia.

Marie-Laure’s housekeeper forms a resistance effort and her uncle agrees to transmit information using his radio in the attic.  Thus the connection between Marie-Laure and Werner is made—-Werner discovers the transmissions and recognizes The Professor from his youth.  Von Rumpel’s story focuses on his attempt to find the Sea of Fire diamond.  The three stories eventually collide as St Malo is bombed in Aug 1944.

The author chooses a short to very-short chapter approach to keep us turning the pages to learn what happens next to the primary characters.  The short chapter approach is generally effective.  By usually revolving amongst the main characters and delivering short bursts of information, the author creates and seeks to maintain our engagement to see the story through.  The lush language sometimes got in the way for this reader who sometimes found the book dragging on a bit. The author also chooses a flash-forward, flash-back format to tell the story.   This choice is tolerable but not necessarily needed except that the form is perhaps expected in a novel written today.

The characters are variably engaging for this reader.  Werner’s story, aside from the precociousness of his sisters’ warning, is very compelling.  Werner’s expected fate is working in the mines which he truly wants to avoid; the special school seems his only route to education and stimulation of his engineering brain.  While he does learn and is put to work using his special talents, he, along with all of the other boys, suffers from a brutalization of the soul and the horrors of the German Reich as part (focus?) of their education. The character feels very real, genuinely engages, and for whom this reader feels much compassion.  The general demise of health and heart Werner experiences as he does his job to track down transmissions of the Resistance is well drawn and very believable as is his basically criminal reaction to the transmission he discovers in St Malo (which he doesn’t report).  We see his mind and body broken and cheer his small resistance and hope he can survive.

Von Rumpel is on a relentless mission to find the diamond for the glory of the Reich and which he hopes will somehow safe him from the cancer that is eating his body.  The device of the exotic diamond seemed a bit strained—was it really needed?  I would have been more engaged with Marie-Laure’s father carrying a valuable document to further then Resistance and Von Rumpel seeking to find that document.     Perhaps this device is to show that wars include those driven more by greed than policy.

This reader found the character of Marie-Laure to be the flattest.  She is blind but is beloved and cared for and seems to be in a bubble separate from the rest of reality.  The reason the author chose to make the character blind is not clear to me.  A non-blind 16-year old girl would have also been in distress at the climax and the interactions between her and Werner likely similar. While there would be no need for the miniature neighborhood to teach her bearings, the relationship with the father could have been as strong and a puzzle hiding place for the diamond still a possibility.

I understand the appeal of this book.  Despite my criticisms I agree it is a good book that highlights the kind of destruction that war can bring to property, body, and soul.


Exit West

By Mohsin Hamid

Published 2017

Read Jan 2018

Hamid’s use of language is remarkable.  He catches your breath nearly immediately: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class….but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” His language is deceptively simple but charged with much food for thought.  In Chapter 1 we meet Saeed and Nadia, two young people in an unnamed city, as they meet and begin a relationship as their city is about to fall apart completely and the lives of all its inhabitants forever changed.

Saeed and Nadia are likely both Muslim, but only Saeed regularly prays.  Nadia does, however, wear a concealing long black robe.  When asked why, she responds “So men don’t fuck with me.”  We learn Nadia has left her family’s home and lives alone in a small apartment which she ferociously loves.  The robe helps her maintain a distance from others that is important to enabling her to live the life she wants.  Saeed lives with his parents.  His father takes his prayers fairly seriously and honored his son’s request to attend prayers with the other men at a fairly young age.  Saeed’s mother prays some but not with the same devotion as her husband. Saeed’s religion likely was a driver for his decision not to have sex with Nadia until they were married, surprising and somewhat annoying Nadia, although she accepted his position.  They found ways to be intimate within that constraint and as the city continues to fill with refugees and become less safe for all.

In short time, the war intensifies, internet and cell phone connectivity are cut off, and Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet.  Nadia stays at Saeed’s house the night of the funeral, to offer comfort and help, but never returns to her own apartment.  The young people begin investigating “the doors” they are hearing about and arrange passage for the three of them—Nadia, Saeed, and his father.  They hope their down payment isn’t just a scam.  When it’s clear they will be leaving, Saeed’s father refuses to go saying “Your mother is here.” With great discomfort Saeed agrees to leave without him.  Saeed’s father requests Nadia see Saeed through to safety and indicates he hopes that one day she will be the mother of his grandchildren.

We expect the next part of the novel to be the story of their struggle through various places on their way to someplace like Sweden.  It begins that way.  Saeed and Nadia are first in Mykonos and we experience their dislocation and struggle to find food and other essentials while their savings dwindle.

But the next “door” for which they pay passage drops them into a bedroom in a mansion in Kensington Gardens section of London.  Many of the currently un- or under-occupied mansions in the area (second or third homes for their owners) have doorways that have somehow opened up to thousands of immigrants.  New challenges abound for the “natives” vs “immigrants”.

With a stroke of the pen, Moshin Hamid creates a new set of questions about immigration and some new possibilities.

What if immigrants can cross boundaries through a simple “door”.  How do you protect your property?  How do you make the immigrants leave? Will you kill them if necessary?

While Saeed and Nadia are in London, electricity and water are shut off to the “immigrant community” in the toney Kennigston Garden section in an attempt to drive them out of rooms in which they “squat”.  War between the groups is poised to occur.  Saeed and Nadia realize they’ve left one war-torn city for another city about to become completely war-torn as well.  Fortunately that doesn’t happen: “Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.  Or perhaps the sheer number of places where there were now doors had made it useless to fight in any one.”

So Hamid opens more questions:  What if the Atlantic and Pacific oceans don’t protect the USA from throngs of immigrants crowding through doors they hear about.  What if a wall isn’t enough to stop them?  What if you can’t stop them coming?

How do you allocate food?  How do you provide work?  How do you create basic infrastructure to provide water, sewers, and light to thousands of new people willing to work for their keep and simply seeking a better life than the one they’ve left behind.

Nadia and Saeed end up in Marin, CA.  They have a shanty with a corrugated metal roof and discarded packing crate sides.  They acquire a solar panel and battery set with a universal outlet and with the strong wireless signal everywhere they have connection needed in the modern world.  There were few natives in Marin, CA but then the concept of “nativeness” turns out to be relative as many others considered themselves to be native (although they clearly were descended from immigrants).

And why were people migrating in such vast numbers?  The reasons are likely due to calamity created by mankind:  war, famine due to climate change, war, rising waters flooding islands and coastline, war, war, war.  So many on the move for many reasons, with limited likelihood they would return “home”.

And who do you try to connect with when you are among the immigrants—people like you?  In what respect?  Color? Language? Religion? What matters now?

Hamid’s short novel (229 pages) fills the reader with these questions and many more.  He doesn’t provide us with answers but he did leave this reader with a sense of hope.  He provides Saeed and Nadia a graceful end to their relationship.  He shows us the building of communities by and for new settlers to areas once “owned” by the “natives”.  He shows us the city Saeed and Nadia left rebuilt and filled with young people that know only of the war they experienced through their history lessons.  He shows us things will continue but they will never be the same and that’s OK.    Once we’re OK with it.