All The Light We Cannot See

“I have been feeling very clear headed lately and what I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colours. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the colour of old coins. Sometimes the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of pearls drag over it like beads.

It is my favourite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything everyone could ever feel.”

(Letter written by Werner Pfennig to his sister Jutta.)

There’s an aching gap in my soul that seeks the sea all the time, though I’ve never been a coast dweller. It’s been years since I visited the seashore. And yet, every so often, when the soul grows turbulent, it seeks not calm but the truly turbulent embrace of the sea. Like a drop of water aching to merge into the deep where it belongs.

For several months now, I’d been longing to read a book that had the sea in it.

And then I found this. A vast expanse of blue on the cover. The sea and the sky.

All The Light We Cannot See.

Of course I knew about the book—it had been the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2015. But it was a war story and I have a personal … aversion… so to speak… to war stories. I had been carrying preconceived notions about descriptions of battlefield violence and concentration camps, and that is not the book I wanted to read. I needed something to soothe me.

But the blue on the cover called out to me. In a lilting whisper, like the sound of the wind over the sea.

I picked it up. And I was unprepared for how entirely it engulfed me.

All the Light We Cannot See is a book full of images. Unforgettable images that stay with you like fragments of memory borrowed from another life – a life you lived, but not quite.

Images of a visually challenged girl feeling, hearing and sensing her way through the world, her keenness, her intelligence, her sensitivity to every speck around her.

Of a brother and a sister listening to a man playing the piano on the radio, notes of a symphony floating across the ethers from far, far away. Connecting people in wordless, unfathomable ways.

Of a tiny city within a city, cut out from pieces of wood. Images of a tiny house, a puzzle that opens up to reveal a diamond the size of an egg. And a cursed one at that.

Of Marie Laure’s shoes squelching with water.

“Feel this,” Says Hubert Bazin, and crouches and brings her hand to a curved wall which is completely studded with snails. Hundreds of them. Thousands.

“So many,” she whispers.

“I don’t know why? Maybe because they’re safe from gulls? Here, feel this, I’ll turn it over.” Hundreds of tiny, squirming hydraulic feet beneath a horny, ridged top: a sea star. “Blue mussels here. And here’s a dead stone crab, can you feel his claw? Watch your head now.”

The surf breaks nearby, water purls past her shoes. Marie-Laure wades forward; the floor of the room is sandy, the water barely ankle-deep. From what she can tell, it’s a low grotto, maybe four yards long and half as wide, shaped like a loaf of bread. At the far end is a thick grate through which lustrous, clear sea wind washes. Her fingertips discover barnacles, weeds, a thousand more snails.

… The tide flows past their feet. Everywhere mussels click and sigh. She thinks of wild old seamen who lived in this town, smugglers and pirates, sailing over the dark seas, winding their ships between ten thousand reefs. 

“Open your eyes,” says the Frenchman on the radio “and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

There are three most remarkable things about this book.

The first and most striking is its effortless juxtaposition of a magic element into a very real story of war – the diamond. Never openly claiming the effect of a supernatural power, namely the curse, yet constantly creating an undercurrent of an unseen force somehow dictating the courses of all lives.  A diamond with a legend behind it, belonging to the Goddess of the Sea, a diamond whose owner possesses immortality. A point of sharp luminosity sitting astonishingly within the world of ordinary human lives.

The other remarkable thing is the book’s subtle yet striking presentation of suffering, and of the terrifying facets of human nature. A story that lays bare the gut wrenching horrors of war and yet does it almost delicately: gliding like a butterfly and stinging like the proverbial bee. A pathos that sinks deep into you like a faraway forlorn song. And yet, amid all the suffering, there is a constant touch of beauty, a constant touch of the light that emanates from humanity. The connections between people on opposite sides of the war, people turned into enemies by the bondages of fate, people who could have loved and cherished each other had they met otherwise. There is an astonishing beauty in the way the book brings together all its loose ends, an anticipation it sets up right from the beginning. It makes your heart race and your blood rush towards a conclusion that seems both inevitable and impossible at the same time.

And that brings us to the final remarkable aspect, that despite being a 530-pager, this book holds you in an unshakeable grip. Deeply moving and thought provoking, it shows how human lives are forever trapped in the bonds of circumstance, how choices can sometimes be so limited that we end up doing exactly what we never wanted to do—or when we do make the right choice, it may rob us of everything, absolutely everything. Yet the book chooses to end with hope. It chooses to end on a vision of life in its all its delicate, precariously prancing glory.

Page after page after page, the story flows rich and smooth, layered in surprising textures, eliciting various contradictory feelings one after another in an ebb and flow of emotions. Like the sea which is a constant presence throughout, and the airwaves that connect people as distant from each other as could be, this book has an enveloping presence that soothes you, holds you and fills every bit of you with awe.


Published by Zehra Naqvi

Zehra Naqvi is an author, independent journalist and mother. She has been writing for over a decade on literature, gender and socio-political issues and her articles have been published in Indian Express, Reader’s Digest, The Hindu, The Wire, Outlook, The Quint, Financial Chronicle, Child Magazine, Women’s Web and others. Zehra has been featured in the RBTC list of 100 Most Inspiring Muslim Women from Uttar Pradesh. She has appeared on international radio as well as national and international television, speaking on gender justice. Zehra is a quadruple gold medalist in journalism from Aligarh Muslim University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: