“All The Light We Cannot See”, by Anthony Doerr

After a long absence (due to a happy cocktail of getting married a few months’ ago; taking an Environmental Studies AS level; and trying my hand at a few pieces of freelance writing for Collectively) I finished All the Light We Cannot See last night, and, once the sobs had subsided, immediately felt the need to write a review.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the most stirring and tender pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Centred around the build up to, and fall out from, the Second World War, it tells the story of two children – Marie-Laure and Werner.

Marie-Laure is a young Parisian who, having lost her sight as a little girl, learns to revel in the mysteries of the world through the patience and love of her father. Her Papa is a locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and as well as designing impregnable cases for the Muséum’s treasures, builds his daughter a miniature version of Paris as a way of teaching her how to find her way through the city. Their relationship is beautifully drawn – the way in which Marie-Laure’s father teases the confidence and imagination out of her, and, as the story progresses, shields her from the horrors of war, is deeply moving without ever feeling sentimental.

Just before she loses her sight, Marie-Laure is told the story of a large blue diamond locked up somewhere in the Muséum, which confers eternal life on whoever carries it whilst inflicting destruction on their loved-ones: the Sea of Flame. As the Nazis swarm across Europe (and unbeknownst to his daughter) Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted either with the real diamond or a decoy, and told to get it out of Paris. The pair make their way to Saint-Malo; to the home of Marie-Laure’s brilliant great-uncle, Etienne, a man still deeply scarred by the horrors he witnessed in the First World War. Inevitably the legend of the diamond obsesses one particularly cruel treasure-hunting Nazi, who pursues the small family to their hiding-place and threatens to destroy their sanctuary.

Woven into these scenes is the story of Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, both snow-haired orphans living in a mining town in Germany. When he is still very young Werner finds a discarded radio, which he teaches himself how to fix. As he is flicking through the static one evening, he discovers a distant French voice giving dream-like lectures to children on science and the mysteries of the universe. He and Jutta fall in love with the voice and the worlds of knowledge it opens up to them. For Werner in particular, the mysterious Frenchman inspires a deep fascination in mathematics and engineering, and before long he has become a prodigious radio-engineer. His remarkable academic abilities win him a scholarship to one of the Nazi’s top boys’ schools, and as Jutta looks on in despair, her gentle, curious brother becomes mired in the moral horrors of Hitler’s programme for Germany’s elite children.

In one respect, this is a good old-fashioned page-turner: in addition to inter-weaving the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr also takes you backwards and forwards in time so that their denouement is teased from the very beginning. It’s wholly gripping, and I simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished it last night. More than that, though, the novel unravels the ways that war strips the magic and wonder from life. In their own ways, the novel’s children are fascinated by the natural world – by molluscs and radio waves, botany and birds. The machine of war corrupts, steals and warps those passions, threatening not just the characters’ lives but also the inexplicable mix of kindness and intellectual curiosity which defines them. One of the questions which is asked time and time again throughout the story is what these children might have been had it not been for the barbarity of that war: yes, the novel is affirming in many ways and there’s a vein of indomitable humanity throughout, but it is also, inevitably, completely heart-breaking, as each of the characters loses the world they’d known and the life they might have lived.

When I’d finished snivelling into the kitchen roll, I have to say that it all felt quite timely and political, too. Hopping onto my soap box for a minute, I’ll be voting to remain in the EU for a raft of reasons (it makes economic sense; our only hope of decent environmental legislation comes from Europe; the immigration scare-mongering is Daily Mail nonsense; and we need to avoid the TTIP by being part of Europe, not by substituting it for something more sinister (as George Monbiot wrote today)). But it’s also more fundamental than that. The EU may primarily have an economic raison d’être, but it was essentially assembled in the wake of this very war to create a united, peaceful, prosperous Europe. I defy anyone to read a novel like this and to feel isolationist.

All-Light-We-Cannot-See

Brexit

Over the course of the weekend, David Cameron announced that there will be a referendum regarding the UK’s EU membership held on 23 June 2016. After his recent late-night negotiations in Brussels, the PM’s obviously hoping that he’s done enough to convince the on-the-fencers to stay in the union – people campaigning for the Brexit are unlikely to change their minds at this stage, and the pro-EUers are probably pretty settled in their views too. It’s all those people in the middle, who aren’t really sure what all this is about and whether they care, that will make the difference.

I’ve talked about this with various friends recently, and the general consensus seems to be that this conversation is confusing, complicated, and really difficult to get a handle on. The Scottish referendum was pretty straightforward – either they want to be British or they don’t – and although there were obviously layers of economic and political arguments, it felt like much more of an emotional decision. I’d never really thought about the implications of what it means to be English and a Brit before, but when it came to it I found the idea of us going our different ways really distressing. Partly because of the history – there’s so much Britain has done as a combined unit we can be proud of – and partly because the idea of us all becoming more insular seems crazy to me. I know my grasp of the details of the Brexit debate is still pretty ropey, but it’d take a lot to convince me that an individualistic mind-set makes sense in 2016.  Still, unlike being Scottish or English (particularly during rugby season) I get the sense that for most of us, being “European” doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal day to day. It’s such an intangible thing. Being British is part of my identity – being European can often just feel like geography.

That’s something I’m seriously beginning to challenge, though – because I genuinely believe our greatest hope for a fair, functioning, and environmentally stable world lies in being part of something bigger than ourselves. The island mentality just won’t cut it any more. Yes, I’m always going to get tribal about the Six Nations, the superiority of English ale, British rain, our humour, our countryside – I love my home. And yes, the EU is too bureaucratic, it’s deeply irritating when they interfere with what we eat and drink, and – let’s face it – the UK could enter Eric Clapton in the Eurovision song contest and still get a mauling. The EU has plenty of flaws, and homogenisation isn’t appealing. But that’s not what this is about – this referendum has to be about finding a shared ideology, not cultural differences. We live in a world of globalised capitalism, where markets are king, corporations influence politics and where free trade agreements like TTIP go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. We can’t look at political responsibility in terms of ever decreasing circles whilst also living with “capitalism sans frontieres”. There are no checks and balances in that model – no political bodies with the scope to curb the activity of international companies. If the markets are global, then surely the playbook has to be too.

We’re already facing an existential crisis as a species; if we don’t tackle climate change head-on and with incredible dedication over the coming years, then everything is going to alter irreparably. And we’re not going to be able to do that unless we coordinate, and feel a sense of global responsibility. At the risk of sounding corny, we have to become citizens of the world – international corporations sure as hell won’t save us (much as they might like us to believe otherwise), and in the UK we definitely can’t rely on our own government to step up to the plate; not with their appalling environmental record. As I’ve said before, the few environmental laws we have were essentially put in place to enact EU legislation. Without those two key Directives, British wildlife would be extremely vulnerable. The EU may be flawed, but it’s the greatest defence our countryside has.

Ultimately, and notwithstanding all the other reasons I believe in the union, it’s because I love the English countryside so much that I’m going to vote to stay in. Yes it’s imperfect, but committed international activism and enforceable environmental legislation are the best chances we’ve all got to protect our corner of the world (and at the same time, everyone else’s). If we peel off and stick our heads in the rapidly-heating sand then arguments about migrant benefits really will look parochial in no time at all; the months after COP21 literally couldn’t be a worse time to promote an “every man for himself” mentality. Brexit