“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr – Review

I’ve been sitting here for a while now, pen in hand, and I’m finding my review of “All the Light We Cannot See” really hard to write.  During the last few days I’ve been utterly taken over but this novel: every spare minute I’ve had I’ve returned to it and when I haven’t been reading I’ve been thinking and talking about it.  After a few pages I was pretty sure I was reading something special; by the last page there was no doubt.  And now here I am, faced with the challenge of trying to convey the sheer brilliance of the book…. and all the superlatives I can think of seem somehow inadequate.

Then again, I guess by now everyone has some idea of exactly how good it is: it’s just won the Pulitzer Prize and has had glowing reviews by people far better than me at coming up with complimentary adjectives!  So instead of spending the next couple of hundred words trying to find synonyms for “fantastic” I’m just going to talk about the effect this book had on me and the ideas that resonated with me as I read.  In fact, I think my lasting memory of “All the Light We Cannot See” will be the almost unbearable intensity of emotion it evoked and the way words and images from it bubbled around in my head for some time afterwards.

Set primarily in Germany and occupied France during the Second World War, the novel’s two main characters are Marie-Laure, a blind girl driven out of Paris with her father when the Germans invade, and Werner, a German orphan whose talent for building and repairing radio equipment brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth movement.  The idea of sound as a way of connecting with the world is a hugely important theme – for both children it is a lifeline when literally or figuratively deprived of sight.  Marie-Laure relies heavily on sound to navigate the world around her.  For Werner, the magical voices that reach him via his first homemade radio set promise the possibility of a life beyond his orphanage home and a bleak future working down the mines where his father perished.  Even Volkheimer, one of the most respected and feared members of the Hitler Youth, manages momentarily to escape the horrors of what he’s been forced to do and see through his love of classical music.  Reading the novel is an incredibly sensory experience.  When Marie-Laure explores the wonder of the seashore for the first time, we experience it as she does: through the delicate grooves of a shell, the smell of the salt and the cool softness of the sand.  As a radio operator much of Werner’s knowledge of conflict comes through the static of his headphones, and we are largely left to imagine the horrors as he hears first he Russian voices, then the gunshots, then the silence.  By the time the book drew to a close, I had not only an incredibly vivid visual image of the novel’s world in my mind, but really felt as if I had listened, smelled and touched my way through the story as well.  I think that’s why I found “All the Light We Cannot See” so profoundly moving – we’re so used to relying on sight to make connections with people around us, but instead this novel plays on the importance of those mysterious links that can exist between two people who have never even set eyes on one another.  A mere voice piercing the darkness in our most desperate times can give us hope and a reason to survive.

One of the most effective ways to recommend a book is to compare it to another, but I couldn’t think of any useful comparison for this particular novel.  If I had to sum it up I would say it’s literary while remaining accessible, moving without being bleak and a riveting insight into an important period of recent history without ever losing sight of the human stories that provide its heart.  I thought this book was exceptional – as the saying goes, miss it, miss out.

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