All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

He carries her on his back. Now, the barking of gulls. Smell of wet stones, of bird shit, of salt, though she never knew salt to have a good smell. The sea murmuring in a language about travels through stone, air, and sky. What did Captain Nemo say? The sea does not belong to tyrants. 

I was gifted this Pulitzer-Prize-winning, paperback novel shortly before I left for the Netherlands. I had to leave many wonderful, unread books behind in Canada, but I would not allow this one to be one of them.

Just like the cover, All the Light We Cannot See is mesmerizing in its words. A story that almost transcends what is magical, it paints a complex scene of Europe in the throes of the Second World War primarily through two characters: Werner, a German orphan, radio aficionado, forcibly conscripted into Hitler’s army; and Marie-Laure, a blind daughter of a locksmith to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. In many short parts contained in thirteen larger sections, this novel is absolutely ambition, attempting to convey meanings through multiple themes, characters, and places all through the chaos of war.

Doerr is an explorer and adventurer at heart, giving his characters larger-than-life interests, notebooks of unanswerable questions, and such high-reaching morals, they almost seem fantastical. In the back-cover reviews, All the Light We Cannot See is described as “stunning and uplifting” and “heartbreaking, joyous,” which are not inaccurate as Doerr, as he does also very thematically in this novel, attempts to place the reader at the point where light and darkness meet. His prose is beautiful, his characters are beautiful, his themes of light and the ocean and the travelling of sound  and creation of one of the world’s rarest diamonds, are beautiful. His scenes in militarized Germany, a forgotten orphanage, invaded Paris and demolished Saint-Malo are beautiful. It’s all so beautiful I realized I was gaining some very disturbing satisfaction about Doerr’s description of blood. Like my comments about The Book Thief a few years ago, I worry a little bit about all this beauty. To be brief, I believe Doerr puts himself in dangerous territory of romanticizing the Second World War and its destruction.

If you liked The Book Thief I can almost guarantee you will enjoy this novel. So don’t let me ruin it for you. Doerr’s prose is so rich and complete it is worth reading, and also, perhaps, a little consideration afterwards about what kind of role this endless beauty plays in our perception of such a catastrophic event.

Books read: 5


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