All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
This much lauded book by a best-selling and feted literary author (Granta named him one ‘Best 21 American Novelists’ ) has been reviewed a quite a bit on this and other book-sites, mainly positively, but also with some grumbles. So perhaps this is a little late, but I would like to add to the pot.
Sweeping human stories told against the backdrop of war (especially WWII with its moral certainties) come with a yoke, a built in brace of sorts. You are guaranteed that there will be acts of great cruelty and great caring, and they will be amplified by the confusion and cacophony of war in ways that human dramas in peacetime cannot rely. You sort of know what you are getting into before you start, but this is not so much a criticism as statement of genre. Before I get flamed, many a great novel has been nurtured on this fertile ground, but the borders of narrative are fairly sharply drawn, particularly if the story spans the entire time frame of the war.
So it is with this book. A blind French girl child (5 in 1934 when the story starts, and 16 at the end of the war) – a beautiful innocent, protected and treasured by her loved ones and protectors until they sucked into the maw of war, one by one, leaving her alone and scared, facing what she knows must come. A young German boy, an orphan and radio savant, conscripted into the Wehrmacht for his skills, trapped by forces that initially he does not understand, and then cannot resist, finally fighting back with a small act of kindness. And nastiness and cruelties meted out by sundry Nazis of diverse and creative malice. And of course, humanity stripped to its core, with all the cliches that this portends.
Lest this sound a tad harsh, I should soften. It is beautifully written, and in parts soaringly beautifully written, with minutely observed physical descriptions and studied and gentle character development. The story and plot are carefully crafted from many small threads and draped artfully over the long war years and beyond. The inevitable meeting of the blind French girl and the German orphan boy and their graceful entanglement is quiet and powerful. An ancient and priceless diamond carrying the story along with its history and brute power as the Nazis loot European treasures. Survivors living out their days with their pasts overwhelming their presents. The dead remembered by the tiny and sad shreds of their lives – a letter, a key, a photo, a uniform, a model house. A soft and satisfying ending, ringing melancholic and true.
But there were difficulties along the way. It felt too long (over 500 pages). Someone, perhaps the author or his editor, insisted on wildly oscillating chronologies which completely wrecked the flow of the story for me, adding nothing in tension and occasionally confusion and frustrated flipping back of pages. The chapters were very, very short, mostly less than 2 pages (which was quite interesting for a while, and then jangling).
But I perhaps protest too much. I am left with the taste of the characters and the echoes of the story and a light sadness which has not yet left me. By this measure alone this must go on my recommend list.