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Four reasons to read All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize last year. If that’s not enough for you, here are four (other) reasons to read it:

1. The cast of characters

The two main characters are a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and Werner, a German boy who is scooped up by the Nazis and placed in a paramilitary college. The war means that both children need to exercise adult sensibilities and make adult decisions; throughout the novel, the protagonists’ innocence continuously knocks against the demands that war makes of them.

There is a supporting cast of hugely sympathetic characters, both in France and in Germany, whose fragility and personal exposure result in a complete investment in the narrative.

Ultimately, I really cared what happened to all the characters in this book – even the automaton German soldiers programmed to murder.

2. The poetic prose

This book is beautifully crafted.  It feels like every word has been especially chosen for its purpose in that sentence, in that paragraph.  The language is fluid, and it is this flow that makes the book so easy to devour. There are lovely passages that demand you re-read them:

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches…. she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.

But the language is poetic even when Doerr is in simple story-telling mode:

The engineer is a taciturn, pungent man named Walter Bernd whose pupils are misaligned.  The driver is a gap-toothed thirty-year old they call Neumann One.  Werner knows that Volkheimer their sergeant, cannot be older than twenty, but in the hard pewter-coloured light of dawn, he looks twice that.

3. The time and place

Some historical novels don’t wear their historical context lightly; you really know that it’s about history, and that it’s important.  However, while this whole novel pivots on the growing momentum of the Nazis and the invasion of France, it’s done with sufficient agility so that this historical episode, which has been re-told over and over, is absorbing and original.  Historical detail beautifully enhances the story, rather than distracts the reader.

4. Anthony Doerr seems like a nice bloke

For a precis of the novel, and a glimpse at the personality of Mr Doerr, watch this video.  He explains how he brought together the different strands of the narrative – the power of radio, the fall of Paris and a boy trapped in a basement.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

4 Comments

  1. I really want to read this!

  2. Oh, you totally should!

  3. nancyrmckay

    I am a fan of historical fiction, and this book made that era, people, and locations so real! The school Werner attended showed how the military regime could eat away at your compassion, morale, and soul making it possible for “good” people to do evil things.

    • Thanks for your really thoughtful post. I thought the same thing. Doerr displayed such ability to make even ‘evil’ acts seem logical and relatively reasonable. I think that’s a real skill; its too easy to fall into the usual literary tropes of goodies v baddies or evil v good. off the top of my head I can think of another book that smudges the lines so well.

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