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Book Review | All the Light We Cannot See

by Robert Pisani

8 August 2014, 9:03am
Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr
Honestly, I would have thought by now that despite the fact that 70 years have passed, novelists are still approaching the Second World War in different and original ways. Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief approaches the topic through death’s viewpoint, Ian McEwan’s Atonement tackles the war from a very meta angle, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones focuses on the war from a closet SS Officer.

All of these novels twist and subvert our typical ideas of the Second World War and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a new one to the list. Also I would go as far to say that Doerr has written one of the best books of 2014. It is stunning.

So what is making me use hyperbole (and trust me there are more adjectives I could chuck in here)? Well, for starters the book does not really feature any battles. A village is raided and there are a couple of people wounded in action but there aren’t lengthy chapters devoted to Germans and Brits being slaughtered. In fact most of the action takes place in a French Village, in a mansion.

Secondly all the main characters stand out. There’s the blind Marie Laure, the electronics whizz kid, Werner, Etienne the eccentric recluse and Reinhold von Rumpel, the unethical collector.

Third reason?  Doerr  eschews traditional storytelling techniques - not only does the novel revolve around each character’s perspective of the war but all the chapters are bite-sized chunks, ranging between a paragraph to four pages. Despite the brevity, the plot has got many layers and the novel is stuffed with detail.

Marie Laure is the blind daughter of a locksmith, and living quite comfortably in her house in Paris. When the Nazis invade, she and her father have to evacuate. Eventually they settle down in an eccentric relative’s house near the French coast.

Marie’s father is entrusted to smuggle the rarest artefact of the museum he works at. Thus their pilgrimage and eventual ‘vacation’ is a dangerous one. Marie Laure does adapt to the situation and begins to discover that coastal life unveils many surprises.

Werner Pfenning is a gifted orphan capable of fixing radios. Some Nazi officers discover this talent and he is sent to a military academy so vicious and steeped in Nazi brainwashing that he joins the army as a means of escape. He puts his talents to use, which lead to discovering radio and obscure transmissions from France.

Reinhold von Rumpel is the official artefacts collector for the Nazis (as an aside, George Clooney’s adaptation of Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men for more insight on the way Nazi’s used to steal rarities) and there is one particular relic which he is willing to kill for.

As the novel progresses the destinies of these characters do cross and there are unexpected results - Doerr does not succumb to any clichés so don’t expect some sort of romance between any of the three protagonists, neither is there a chapter dedicated to non-stop gunplay. The author deals with his characters in a slightly unorthodox manner, which makes the reader appreciate the fact that the plot development takes some unexpected U-turns.

Although the book is an engaging read, it is enhanced by Doerr’s writing style. It glides across the page like a figure skater, always elegant and never flowery. Doerr clearly believes that less is more and this economic approach results in passages being re-read simply for the down-to-earth beauty. There are paragraphs on snail shells, the act of reading Braille, radio transmissions and all are fascinating. There are ugly moments as well, suchas one particular episode where a boy is cruelly bullied, and even these gut-wrenching moments have a poetic angle.

All the Light We Cannot See is a perfect novel. It is extremely difficult to find any singular flaw with it. Clever without being patronising, simple yet distinctive, stylish and with tons of substance. This is one book that has to be read and will resonate with the reader for days.

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