I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but sometimes when I curl up with a novel, I find myself playing the game of Who’s The Better Writer: Me or the Author?
I don’t recommend this game; it can suck the joy right out of reading. I’ve also wound up with several bouts of inferiority complex. But once my brain kicks into that gear, it can be tricky to turn off.
In an odd way, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is comforting in this regard. With his gorgeous prose and masterful plot, Doerr is so obviously out of my league that I can happily settle into the hands of this superior artist (who is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize winner).
Set during World War II, All the Light weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure–a courageous French girl afflicted by blindness–and Werner, an intellectually-gifted young German whose talents in radio science are used to identify (and eliminate) resistance fighters.
There are so many aspects of this novel on which I might wax poetic. But I’ll try to focus on a few: language, character, and plot.
To the first: I must admit that aesthetics are very important to me in novels. I’m drawn to books that are highly visual, containing striking imagery and evocative settings. I requested All the Light on the recommendation of my friend Paul, without really reading the novel’s synopsis. When I received the book as a gift and realized one of the protagonists was blind, I was a little concerned. Given Marie-Laure’s sightlessness, would this novel still scratch my aesthetic itch?
But Doerr’s language proved to be sweepingly, precisely lovely. He conjures up quaint French towns and sea-slicked grottos with equal vividness; even his more depressing scenes (a bleak mining town, war-desolated Ukraine, the crush of the Russian advance) have a kind of beauty, albeit grim. In many ways, this loveliness makes the horrors stand out all the starker, turning the whole canvas haunting.
Then there are the people who populate Doerr’s story. Whether good, bad, or somewhere-in-between, Doerr’s characters feel real. Oddly enough, his creations remind me of George Eliot’s in Middlemarch–each character sketched so diligently, with even the less savory individuals communicating a sense of authorial compassion. Perhaps the greatest testament to this, at least for me, was my response to Werner. Although his work for the Nazis is instrumental in the murder of resistance fighters, I still found myself rooting for him to survive, live, know some happiness. Perhaps in this, Doerr best captures the terrible poignancy of war. Suffering strikes decent-hearted people on all sides of a conflict–individuals just trying to survive the best they can, in the circumstances that befall them.
And finally, the plot: Told from a variety of viewpoints and woven back and forth across time, All the Light‘s story gradually knits together as the two protagonists circle ever closer to one another. All the Light isn’t a page-turner, per say (after all, it took me months to finish), but the story drew me irresistibly onward until, upon reaching the dénouement, I was flying through the pages, desperate to know if time would prove to be on the side of the heroes.
Relatedly, Doerr shows masterful dexterity in the ends he allots his characters. I’m trying to ninja my way around spoilers here, so I’ll say only this: across his many characters, Doerr offers a sampling of fates, both tragic and moderately happy, that mirror those met by people who endured the war in real life. No character emerges entirely unscathed. And as much as happy-ending-seeking-me would like it to be otherwise, a cheerier ending would perhaps be a disservice to All the Light. As war literature, the novel is too honest to pretend that those who survived the conflict could emerge without suffering trailing behind them.
Yet, to paint All the Light as a bleak reimagining of war would be inaccurate. Beautifully unarticulated, the novel’s central theme is rather hopeful. It points to the enormous effects that small kindnesses can have, in ways we never realize–this is all the light we cannot see. Perhaps Doerr’s greatest stroke is in not enunciating this idea, but letting the beauty of the story speak for itself.
All the Light is not a swift read, or even a compulsively-consumable story. But it is a profound and beautiful one, and a true pleasure to read. If you’re looking for a World War II novel that renders the horrifying and the lovely with equal veracity, this read’s for you.
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