All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - 2015 - Scribner
So I saw this book getting a lot of praise, but all I knew about was that it followed a blind girl, and an orphan, in World War II. Quite frankly that immediately put me off and made me dismiss it in my mind as a cheap yank on the heartstrings with no real substance. However two of my bookish besties, housemate Holly and fellow bookseller Kieran, told me that it was so much more than that, and that it was a book they KNEW I would love.
I was still unsure, but pulpy quick buck war stories don't win the Pulitzer, so finally I was convinced to pick it up and God I'm so happy I did! ATLWCS is a beautiful novel, and a refreshing take on the well trodden path of the WWII narrative. It took me a good fortnight to get through, I won't say its a gripping read that kept me frantically turning the pages, but every time I opened the book I was drawn into the worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner. Their stories were so rich and beautifully written, made up of these fragmented moments of life, scattered through time, glittering like gems.
What I love most about this novel is that it sets itself apart from the more traditional World War II novels by setting out to find the light in the darkness. Both characters are caught up in tragedy, of course they are, but even in the most harrowing of times the beauty in human relationships remain. Rather than attempting to shock with gory battlefield scenes or forcing tragedy down the throat of the reader, Doerr crafts a story of survival, of quiet defiance and sheer will. It's a story about wonder, and the importance of owning your own mind. Werner is driven by scientific curiosity but restricted by the rise of the Nazi regime as they attempt to stomp out any characteristics that do not adhere to their vision of 'perfection', Marie lives adventure after another through her braille books and the games of imagination she plays with her great uncle but is housebound in the midst of the French resistance. We follow both characters through two very different coming-of-age stories and watch as their two stories wind ever closer together.
The writing is beautiful but very occasionally slips into being bloated and a little over flamboyant. and the story has moments where it's so dense you have to wade through it a little bit. The novel also jumps around in time which can become disorientating now and again. For me the biggest flaw in the novel is in the ultimate climactic scenes in which the various threads finally weave together. These passages honestly feel slightly rushed, as if Doerr had actually become slightly bored with building up to the ending and just wanted it out of the way so he could get on with the 'ten years later' style ending chapters. Having flitted in and out of the situation the entire way through the novel I was expecting something a little more sensational than what I got. But perhaps that was the point. The novel consistently refuses the melodramatic and seeks out the subtle moments buried under the drama. These qualms aside it is a glorious read. Gentle and understated but honestly unforgettable. It's definitely a novel I'd recommend. For the most part the gentle story and short chapters make it a relatively easy read but it has so much substance and is an incredibly enjoyable, sumptuous reading experience.
Let me know if you've read this, and what you thought!
Thank you for reading,