The Pocket Guide Reviews: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s recently published WWII novel, has been cropping up on what feels like every “Best Books of 2014” list around. From the New York Times to Amazon and Goodreads, critics and readers alike have been fawning over this National Book Award finalist for months.
Despite the public praise and the staggering number of times it was personally recommended to me, I was initially hesitant to try this book. I’d picked it up at the store numerous times, read the back, and decided that it wasn’t quite what I was in the mood for. It was on my list. I’d read it eventually. Except that months passed and I still hadn’t gotten to it.
Eventually, though, I caved and bought the heavy hardcover volume, which tells the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan with a prodigious knack for repairing radios.
I don’t know that it cracks my personal “Best of 2014” list, but I have to concede that the prose is beautiful and the imagery striking. The novel does, after all, open on a lone blind girl grasping a leaflet with instructions to flee the city in advance of imminent aerial strikes. You can’t exactly not turn the page after that.
The narrative form is also highly engaging, with chapters broken up in a way that lends a natural fluidity to the frequent chronological and geographic leaps. Additionally, Doerr creates an interesting tension by introducing an expanding web of characters and storylines that serve to draw the two protagonists closer to their inevitable meeting.
The book does not provide a new perspective on WWII, but it takes a nuanced look at the effects of war, especially on those who come of age in the midst of it. The horrors of WWII are far from undocumented, but the sensory focus of the novel – be it on sound, taste, or mankind’s connection to nature– does unveil an intriguing and tactile way of connecting with the characters and the world they inhabit.
While at times I found the sentimentality a bit heavy-handed (Doerr sometimes seems overly intent on ending each chapter with a pithy line weighed down with gravitas), there is generally very little to find fault with. Doerr writes beautifully and, as the story progresses, weaves an intricate tale with as much grace as any writer I’ve recently read.
So my advice to you is this: just bite the bullet, buy the book and enjoy what is, undeniably, a thoughtful and enjoyable read.