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All the Light We Cannot See

Beautiful, brilliant. All the Light We Cannot See, a novel by Anthony Doerr, brings poetry and metaphor to a story rich in sensation and science. It echoes the best of Samuel R Delany, Salman Rushdie, Roger Zelazny: a magical crisp awareness, a deeper, higher presence. In an early chapter ("Around the World in Eighty Days") one of the central characters, a blind girl, answers:

The children she meets brim with questions: Does it hurt? Do you shut your eyes to sleep? How do you know what time it is?

It doesn't hurt, she explains. And there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture. She walks a circle around the Grand Gallery, navigating between squeaking floorboards; she hears feet tramp up and down museum staircases, a toddler squeal, the groan of a weary grandmother lowering herself onto a bench.

Color—that's another thing people don't expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.

A few pages later (in "The Professor") two other children listen to a voice on the radio describing physics, geology, and biology via the natural history of coal:

Consider a single piece glowing in your family's stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun's energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years—eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight—sunlight one hundred million years old—is heating your home tonight . . .

Reading All the Light We Cannot See, one wants to write a poem, see a painting, hear a concerto, run through the forest — awake. As the story continues:

Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

Open your eyes ...

(cf. How Great Thou Art (2005-03-16), No Method (2010-01-21), Wait for the Breath (2013-07-09), Wakeful, Open, Tender (2016-08-25), ...) - ^z - 2017-06-09