Saturday, 12 November 2016

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

*Minor Spoilers Below*

This book came to me highly recommended. People in my book club, in particular, described how strongly moved they were by the prose and the story. I was not quite so enchanted, but I'll grant that it's pretty good. For one, it managed to be good despite a writing quirk that I really hate, and an ending that suffered from trying to connect all the dots satisfactorily.

It's a story of war, drifting back and forth between a young blind French girl who lives in a city that we know from the first chapter will get bombed to shit by the Allies, and a young German boy who has a particular aptitude for radio, and, like many others, was drafted into the army on the basis of being the right age at the right time, and not from any dedication to Nazism. (Plenty of the young men around him are fervent believers or insidiously anti-Semitic, so I'll give this a pass. Even though, just days post-Trump election, I'm not feeling particularly inclined to pat people on the head and say it's okay, they didn't know what they were doing.)

They are linked by strange coincidences in their youth, and both are left trapped by the wake of the bombing (although in the girl's case, it's the Nazi in the house looking for a diamond that keeps her hidden.) Oh yes, there's a diamond, which neither the boy or the girl care about, but all the Nazis do, the symbol of what the evil elders are fixated upon while the children are tender and care not for such things. It's a sweet story. (And I'm probably coming off a little harsh, but something in me isn't ready for sweet these days. Or needs sweet to come from different sources.)

It is however, a sweet story that comes in very, very short chapters. James Patterson short. I really hate this - you barely have a breath to read about one character before you're with another, and for me, particularly because I read so quickly, it tends to give a book a weird stuttering quality. That Doerr mostly manages to make the experience less jerky is a testament to his writing.

We flip back and forth, very quickly, between Marie-Laure and Werner, and this is all about finding mutual humanity in inhumane situations, and for the most part, yes, it works. I'm just...I don't know, I'm not blown away. Maybe it's because the chapters are too short for me to really sink into feeling what the characters feels. 

Still, for all that, it's pretty good. I don't feel it's anywhere near as deep a look at war and connection between disparate groups as, say, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, but I know the odds of me convincing a lot of people to read a lesser-known massive Russian tome about war and compromise are not great. Even if I told you Life and Fate reduced me to shaking tears and lingered in my mind. Grossman wrote something that is not an easy book, but it is so goddamned powerful I don't think I can fully capture it. Doerr is writing literature about war light - sweet, and good, but not indelible. 

(Seriously, read Life and Fate. I know you won't, but you should.) (I know, it's like a thousand pages long. It's worth it.) (Pretty please?) (Seriously, war shouldn't be easy to read about.)

The other issue I had with it was the desire at the end to do coda after coda to wrap things up into neat little bows. (Also, Doerr just had to throw in a very bloodless and emotionless rape, to make sure that we remember that rape happens in war.) (We remember.) (Just fucking stop it already.)

I would have liked this a lot better if the end of the book was the end of the war. If we didn't know if these people ever found out about each other. If we didn't quite know what happened. In trying to answer every question, and answering them with the solution that everything that happened during the bombing of a small town came out and was absolutely communicated between people from different nations who would never have had reason to know about each other - it beggars belief. And speaks to a desire to have utter control over a story that would be better if it recognized that war wrests away control. That what happened to individuals you met during war may not be something you ever know.

(Also, there's some basic math issues at the end. If Marie-Laure is 102 in the last chapter, and her grandson is 12, and Marie-Laure was 37 or 38 when she gave birth, that means Marie-Laure's daughter must have been 50 when he was born, and...really? I mean, my grandmother died this year at 96. Her daughter, my mother, was in her 60s. I'm in my late 30s. That math makes more sense.)

Read Life and Fate?


  1. You make some compelling points, Megan, as is your habit. I thought the ending was weak, too. It added virtually nothing. One area where I was probably a bit more accepting than you was in young Werner's role in the war. I think at that point standing up to an SS officer (or whoever was in charge of murdering those who don't toe the line), was not an option you'd survive. (Please don't think that makes me a Trump apologist, though.) What may be your best point is how good "Life and Fate" must be. I haven't read it, but I now know I should.

    Steve H.

    1. That's fair, Steve. Honestly, if it had been any other day than the one when I wrote it, I probably wouldn't have been so cranky.

    2. Completely understandable! I was afraid the scowl on my face the day (week?) (month?) after would never go away.

  2. I've been conflicted over this for the same reasons (short chapters). That was my initial complaint. The scene ends before you can really become engrossed in the character. It's like a vignette and not entirely conducive to connecting with the characters. Now at the half way mark, the one advantage to the short chapters is that they give the reader time to sit back on the exquisite language used. But is that enough? What is more important, connecting with the story and the characters or stopping frequent enough to admire the Mona Lisa?

    1. That's a really excellent way to think about it, Cryssa! I would prefer some more time to soak it in before being bumped away.