Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Image from Amazon.com

For all the amazing-ness of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr made some nontraditional choices: he went with present tense (mostly?), chopped his behemoth up into hundreds of few-page chapters (often even one page), told the story from two different perspectives (which was doubled in strangeness by being omniscient while being, as I said, present tense), and told his story in non-chronological chunks so that we saw the end a couple times before the beginning and middle. There is a principle with writing which I have mentioned before (and told you about my friend and his theory about figurative gold coins). It is that when an author writes in a way that is unexpected, it makes demands on the reader. If that writer does not then make up for the demands with more than enough positives, the reader will be ultimately unimpressed and may, indeed, abandon the narrative altogether. As a writer, you want a reader to slip into your book (or story) and get lost there. I firmly believe that if All the Light You Cannot See had been in the past tense, had been told mostly chronologically, and had longer chapters (therefore longer times between switching between characters), I wouldn’t have been able to put it down. I would have devoured it. This is not the end-all, be-all of writing expectations of course: we like literature to defy boundaries and surprise us and evolve and all that (at least sometimes), but I just couldn’t understand what the point of Doerr’s non-traditional choices was. Why was my ADHD on red-alert all the time? The jumping around, chopping things up, and being distracted by present tense just never justified itself, for me. In fact, I thought the present tense was a little weird with a blind character, because I felt an intimacy that contradicted the physical description I was being given. (Also, why was Marie-Laure’s father called “the locksmith” so much (at least at the beginning)? Why not “Papa?” or whatever his name was?)

All the Light We Cannot See is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, a book that I see prominent in every single bookstore I go in to, and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. And other awards and other awards. Published in 2014, it is about, essentially, two teenagers, one a boy and one a girl. The girl is a blind Parisian who is hiding in her great-uncle’s house on the coast of France during the German siege of Saint-Malo during World War II. The boy is a German orphan with a remarkable aptitude for machines (specifically radio transmitters) which the Nazis exploit in a troubled, conflicted journey through the Nazi youth into the army. He is in Saint-Malo for the siege, as well. Some of the content of the book takes place in both of their childhoods and some takes place after their meeting (even far into the future), but most of it is from the invasion of Paris up to the siege. It’s a serious book, a heavy book, a thoughtful book, a haunting book. It’s a book about war: it has some real tough moments.

The real beauty in this book comes from Doerr’s way with words, his description of things, his flair for originality and aesthetics, and his ridiculous research/understanding of history. Also, his keen observation of human life, but, maybe more importantly, the physical world. Also, the way he plays with magic realism: a flirtation. (He’s just playing with words, see?) All the senses feel this book all the way through. Every moment is thoughtful, every sentence rings with both clarity and beauty. Can we be made to sympathize with a Nazi? He doesn’t start out as a Nazi. Maybe he doesn’t want to even be a Nazi. (This brings up plenty of feelings about Russian soldiers, at this point in history.) Will the story become a romance? (First, you have to figure out how old these characters actually are. Sometimes Doerr gets so good at being creative and fancy that the obvious things get lost. By the “end,” Marie-Laure is 16 and Werner is 18. I think.) There is a villain. There are conflicts. There are themes that draw the two characters together: science, radios, and a cursed gem. (Again, Doerr gets in his own way, sometimes. We nearly lose sight of the villain, the questions we have about the conflicts, and the science, radios, and the all-important gem in the everyday that fills the bulk of the book. With the many pretty words slimmed down, these connecting pieces would have been much more urgent, more imperative and central. Where I think they should have been. Though I would not envied anyone their job cutting content, here.)

In the end, the positives do win with this book, emphatically, even if it is very put-down-able and probably too long to sustain the supporting characters and (there, underneath) traditional plot line (like bad guy, magical relic, etc.). I always picked it back up. I always drug my eyes back from whatever thing I was looking at every few pages. And I know lots of other people who have done the same thing because it’s a great book. (In fact, I’m sure some people aren’t as distractable as I am and I even know one guy who loves the short chapters because then he can read one or two before bed every night. It takes him like a year to read a Doerr book, but he’s a busy man.) And actually, I said that the choices were never justified. By the end, I did feel like maybe jumping around in time (which, once you got the hang of it, was only a chronological past leading up to a chronological “present,” the first moving much faster than the second) did make some magic happen. I mean, we could sort of see the ghosts of the characters’ futures and the places where they might have overlapped. (Once, this did cause me some confusion which then caused me to look it up and ruin, accidentally, one plotline for myself. Oops.) What I’m saying is that I’m sure Doerr and Doerr fans would at least be able to argue the time shifts and I almost enjoyed them (but definitely not the tiny chapters.)

In the end, it took me months to read this “really great” book. I let myself be distracted a few times by easier reads, because I was regretting my love of, even reverence for, the writing in Light. And I kinda wanted to see what would become of these people, though I wished I could find out much faster.

QUOTES:

There is really a very long list of miraculous wordcrafting in this novel, but I will give you but a handful of these. (PS. Though his chapters are short, his sentences are loooong. I had to cut many of them to make them good quotables):

“…across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid” (p46).

“Voices, it turns out, streak into Zollervein from all over the continent, through the clouds, the coal dust, the roof” (p47).

“…a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollervein: 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” (p49).

“Dr. Geffard pronounces this almost gleefully and pours wine into his glass, and she imagines his head as a cabinet filled with ten thousand little drawers” (p60).

“Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth” (p63).

“Smoke: her great-uncle says it is a suspension of particles, billions of drifting carbon molecules. Bits of living rooms, cafes, trees. People” (p101).

“As though back onshore, all of France is left to bite its fingernails and flee and stumble and weep and wake to a numb, gray dawn, unable to believe what is happening. Who do the roads belong to now? And the fields? The trees?” (p119).

“”’My God, there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together,’” (p120).

“The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers” (p126; an example of how Doerr uses blindness to heighten our senses).

“’Do we have our heads in the sand, Madame, or do they?’ / ‘Maybe everybody does,’ she murmurs” (p167).

“There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That’s how it feels right now, he things, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane” (p189).

“Who knew love could kill you? She spends hours kneeling by herself on the sixth floor with the window open and the sea hurling artic air into the room, her fingers on the model of Saint-Malo slowly going numb” (p226).

“They clomp together through the narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and gragrant and cracling with bees” (p242).

“Who will lie on her back and let her last breath curl up to the ceiling as a curse upon the invaders” (p249).

“Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agress is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something” (p250).

“It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language” (p348).

“…with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not” (p368).

“I am only alive because I have not yet died” (p377).

“Gone or resolved to go: is there much difference?” (p442).

“All of it is burning. Every memory he ever made” (p444).

“Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the bollow bones of eagles. None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes” (p453).

“She tries to grade a third exam but cannot concentrate; the numbers drift across the pages and collect at the bottom in unintelligible piles” (p505; an example of Doerr’s strong imagery as a flirtation with magic realism, Also…) “After three pages, she has to close the notebook. Memories cartwheel out of her head and tumble across the floor” (p506).

“We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs” (p529).

Whole pages that are amazing: pp333 and 529. Bottom of 365-top of 366.

MOVIE: There is a Netflix adaptation coming later this year, I think. It might be very good, but it simply can’t replace the book and the miraculous literature, but it could benefit from the story-telling and be something great. We’ll have to wait and see.

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