I bought All the Light We Cannot See (by Anthony Doerr) a few years ago, after seeing it mentioned on a blog. (I think I also had some loyalty points to use, or maybe a gift card, but that’s beside the point.) However, as always, I had too many other books I wanted to read first, so All the Light just stood on my bedside table for ages, held up between two book-ends and a number of other novels.
Last month, after I finished reading The Idiot, I felt a bit disorientated, and wasn’t sure what to read next. It was also a time when a lot was happening — a very close friend was moving interstate, several other close friends were taking extended holidays to travel, work was getting busier, and I was exhausted in every sense of the word — so I was finding it hard to become absorbed in reading. I actually tried to start two or three other books before I picked up All the Light.
Once I got started, though, it was really hard to put down! I can’t remember the last time I read a book so quickly (I mean, quick by my standards). I suppose it helped that we’ve had a few long week-ends and public holidays recently, but even so… Probably the last book I was so enraptured by was Anna Karenina — not that I read that that quickly, but I was positively besotted by the story and the characters and the writing.
It is the same with All the Light We Cannot See. After finishing it, I just want to go around telling everyone to read it, or at least add it to their To Read lists. What actually prompted me to pick it up was seeing a colleague of mine carrying it around, and I thought it would be nice to actually read a book that someone I know is concurrently reading. After that first long week-end, in which I’d already read almost half the book, I came to work and asked my colleague about it. Unfortunately, she had put her reading on hold in favour of a certain long-running TV series that had just released its final episodes, so I very avidly told her she had to resume reading as soon as possible.
All the Light We Cannot See is about Germany and France in World War II. From experience, I think that war novels are really good at soothing me in times when life is particularly tumultuous or when I’m experiencing a lot of internal disquiet and restlessness. I’m sure other novels help, depending on the storyline, but perhaps war novels have more impact because they’re more human, more real. All through school, they taught us about war, and told us which countries were involved, and how many people died; but it is in novels that you learn what it was like to live in a country being occupied by another, to have your life upended, to follow the instructions of your government while all the time questioning if you’re doing the right thing.
Then again, maybe I’ve just been really lucky to have all the good war novels recommended to me, or to have them fall into my lap some other way. There are maybe one or two that I read a very long time ago, which weren’t all that memorable, but all the ones in recent memory have been incredible. These are the novels that remind me of the endurance, fortitude and resilience that people are capable of, and I suppose, knowing that, I can refocus my perspective.
My situation is really not so bad. I can get through this too.
All the Light alternately tells the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl who becomes blind at the age of six, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy living in the orphanage of a mining town. The story starts in August 1944, when they are both teenagers in separate corners of war-ravaged Saint Malo; then it goes back to 1934, when they are both children, still learning about the world. This switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner, and between pre-war and the near-end of the war, continues throughout the book.
Based on other similarly constructed novels I’ve read, I suppose I actually really like this kind of structure. It makes it a bit more challenging, but also keeps the story going almost at a breathtakingly fast pace (the mostly short chapters help too). To me, it’s like the literary equivalent of doing agility runs, zigzagging between markers, compared to doing the equivalent work in a straight sprint. You might cover the same ground, and get to the same finish place, but it’s more exhilarating to do the zigzagging.
I suppose I also admire authors who can construct these kinds of complex novels. I mean, when I write stories, I kind of just wing it, and I change things as I go, and sometimes I don’t know where I’m actually going, so it’s hard to imagine how much work it takes to have everything so well planned out that you can actually weave all the alternating scenes together in one coherent piece. Anthony Doerr has done really well in this regard.
But All the Light is about more than Marie-Laure and Werner. There are a lot of side characters that make a deep impression: Daniel LeBlanc, who has an unwavering sense of duty to his daughter, and who created a model city so that she could learn to navigate unfamiliar streets; Frau Elena, who is steadfast yet gentle in her way of taking care of the orphans; Madame Manec, who is the most proficient care-giver, yet has more courage, resolve and cunning than perhaps anyone else; and Frederick (Fredde), who has a keen interest in birds, and is one of the most humanitarian characters in the book.
All these characters, alongside Jutta (Werner’s righteous younger sister), Etienne (Marie-Laure’s great-uncle who has lived through the First World War) and Volkheimer (the Goliath who has a soft spot for classical music, and, in the end, helps set things right) — they make me want to believe there is good in this world, and they help make All the Light We Cannot See a truly remarkable novel.
One snippet of a review on the back cover says, “I’m not sure I will read a better novel this year”, and that is exactly how I feel too.