All the Light We Cannot See

all-the-lightSo, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but almost every single person I know recommended this book to me. It’s about France! It’s about books! It’s a prize-winner! No-brainer that Jenny is going to love it! Colleagues, friends, family members, people at church — I swear, I had a lisping six-year-old ask me if I’d read All the Light We Cannot Thee. I kept saying, “Not yet! It’s on my list!” I even gave a couple of copies to other people before I’d read it myself, on the strength of all these recommendations. I asked for a copy for Christmas, knowing I could settle in to read it in the New Year.

Well, now I’ve read it.

Anthony Doerr’s novel brings together two people whose impossibly different experiences of the second World War don’t, in the end, serve to keep them apart. The heroine is Marie-Laure, a girl whose eyes failed her at the age of six. Since then, her father, a curator at the Paris Museum of Natural History, has been teaching her to open herself to her other senses, and creating a tiny wooden model of their neighborhood so she can navigate:

For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

When the occupation comes, Marie-Laure’s father is sent away with a treasure from the museum, to the seaside town of St Malo, and their peaceful lives are torn apart; for a blessing or for a curse is at first difficult to say.

On the other side of the border, Werner Pfennig is in an orphanage. It has been decreed that the boys in his German village will go to the mines when they turn 15, serving the Reich by digging coal, but Werner is a prodigy. He has electricity in his fingertips, radio in his bones, he can draw a diagram of tubes and trigonometry before you even have to ask, and he knows that all light is invisible, a product of our dark-shrouded brains. After his gift is discovered by a local officer, Werner finds himself at an elite Nazi school whose relentless brutality slowly crushes any spark of decency he had when he entered. Unlike Marie-Laure, whose blindness opened her to beauty and relationship, Werner is hammered into a deeper blindness. Slowly — this is a slow-paced book — and, I’m afraid, inevitably, Doerr brings the two threads together, and the finale offers thoughts about molluscs, the miracle of invisible light, and the kind of hope that can come out of such a desolate storm.

I wanted to love this book, and in fact it is very, very pretty. Doerr writes in short sentences and very brief chapters — often only a page or two, with blank pages between them. His acutely sensory prose brings the very image of the beach of St Malo before you, or the cabinets of the museum of Natural History, or the secret attic of a man who collects ancient radios. It’s vivid and detailed. Yet with all the details, the brine and camphor and rose petals and azure sky, I found it somehow unreal and detached from the events that took place. One of the main images in the book is the creation of a tiny, functional world: Marie-Laure’s father carves their neighborhood in intricate detail so his daughter knows where she’s going; Werner is deeply involved in the world of electronics; Marie-Laure falls into the world of the Braille books she reads; the isolated world of Werner’s school functions (or dysfunctions) as if there were nothing else. This book felt that way to me, as if it floated like a soap bubble. Terrible events take place in it — murder, torture, the rape of young girls — and I felt detached from it. This means that the moral epiphany of one of the characters, the one that unleashed the ending, was also not rooted in the reality I would have preferred; it felt insincere to me, or perhaps just carried lightly. With the exception of one character, I felt no real moral weight to the story (and what a contrast to the other WWII novel I read this year, Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada.)

Anthony Doerr said in an interview with the Powell’s Books blog, referring to his short chapters, “This was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’ ” Hmmm. Maybe I would have preferred less white space to recover in, and more to recover from.

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25 Responses to All the Light We Cannot See

  1. great to see you :) good work

  2. Hm, I’ve also been recommended this all over the place, but I don’t like self-consciously pretty prose. Interesting comment at the end there. I do not think anyone who needs to “recover” from lyrical writing is going to be assuaged by a bit of white space. Putting this on the back burner.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d like to see what you think of it, Lory, as I know this is a favorite of many readers. It just didn’t reach me, and I would like to hear some other opinions as well. (But I agree with you about the white space.)

  3. Is the novel shot through with serious ethical problems? From the description, well, I get nervous.

    More novels ought to be set in St. Malo, though. Have you been?

    • Jenny says:

      I have been to St Malo — it’s glorious. Spending some time there was one of the really great parts of the novel.

      Ethical problems — well. It didn’t make me angry, the way, say, Bel Canto did. But if you write a book that takes place during World War II, and your main take-home message is that radio is really amazing, is that okay? Maybe. As I said, it remained very detached from its subject matter.

    • Yes, that is just what I wondered. Nazi atrocities are not a good plot line for a story about adult literacy, to turn to a bestseller from two decades ago.

      • Jenny says:

        Yes, that’s what I was getting at: I somehow feel the author has missed a major point somewhere along the line. (That book was terrible for other reasons, as well, though.)

  4. Deb says:

    Oh dear. Despite being lauded all over the place, this book was not on my tbr list (I rarely read new books; new to me is something published in the last five years), and that condescending comment from the author about white space is setting my teeth on edge, so I think this will be a pass for me.

  5. Stefanie says:

    The book has gotten so much attention I have been tempted to give it a try, but I think I pass it by now and not feel bad about it.

    • Jenny says:

      Maybe you’d like it, Stefanie! A lot of readers have! I just found it too unrooted and too unrealistic (in that sense) for my taste.

  6. lailaarch says:

    I completely understand your feeling of detachment, and that actually worked for me. For better or for worse, I tend to avoid things that I know are going to totally rip me apart, and this had the potential to be very, very sad. The distance and the short chapters helped me keep reading, and the writing was so strong and lovely that I wanted to keep reading. I really liked it, but I didn’t love it. It was a four-star, not a five-star, read for me.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s a perfect explanation of how this kind of book could work for a reader. For me, I left terrible scenes feeling as if they weren’t taken seriously or had no real consequences. I want terrible things to have terrible sequels; that’s how life is. This book floated around a lot of that for me.

  7. Laura J. Bloxham says:

    incredibly fast-paced reading for me and still my favorite book of the year.

    • Jenny says:

      I know how much you liked it, Laura. It was fast-paced reading (all the white space!) but a slow-paced book; what I mean by that is that it was repetitive and we spent many many chapters over just a few hours’ time. I’d love to hear more about why it was your favorite book!

      • Anonymous says:

        I loved the stories of the two children, their perspectives. Such psychology depth. Compelling details that made the narrative arcs engrossing reading. I found the details realistic and breathtaking, literally leaving me breathless as I rushed on for more and more. Couldn’t put it down.

  8. lbloxham says:

    I am not anonymous, even though WordPress says I am. Laura

  9. Nobody has specifically recommended this book TO ME, but yeah, I’ve definitely seen all the bloggers raving about it. I just couldn’t get on with the prose. I generally love a book that goes with short chapters, but this one I found maddening. I wanted to scream BUY A PREDICATE SIR at the author.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh gosh, Jenny, you’re so funny. I know exactly what you mean. And someone who describes his own predicate-free prose as lyrical gets right up my nose, too.

  10. Lisa says:

    This is coming up for discussion in one of my book groups. I won’t buy a copy (I wasn’t going to even before I read this), but the waiting list at the library is over 200. Still. Maybe I will skip that meeting. It’s been suggested for a second book group, but that group won’t buy new books.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, you might really like it! Lots of people have! I just couldn’t get properly into it; I can’t love a book that uses WWII as a backdrop, if you know what I mean.

  11. aparatchick says:

    I absolutely loved this book; it was by far my favorite from last year. But I don’t recommend books to anyone – people’s tastes are so different, and what some people think is superb, someone else finds unreadable (I’m looking at you, The Corrections).

    • Jenny says:

      Whereas recommending books to people is one of my great joys! I agree with you about taste — that’s why I like reading books with Teresa, whom I’ve known so long now. :)

  12. I also wasn’t that impressed with it after all the hype and praise. I found the end helped redeem it, but it shouldn’t have needed so much redemption. Too much pretty prose, not enough character development or plot.

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