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.