“We read to know we are not alone.” C.S. Lewis
Menace pours from the first page of the Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer prizewinner, All The Light We Cannot See.
This is a girl meets boy story although they don’t meet until page 468. I cared about both Marie-Laure, blind and alone as allied bombers bear down on St Malo, and Werner, a German soldier, small for his age, orphaned and desperate to better himself.
This is a war story. Told from both sides. From the point of view of ordinary people. People, like you and me, caught in a cataclysm over which, individually, they had minimal influence. They had to try to live through it, one way or another.
That’s what I like about this novel, the way Doerr shows his reader the plight of the small player.
Doerr does not proffer an historical analysis of the war. And I don’t think this book should be read for that. But it does show Werner doing nothing to help his friend, Frederick, when he is beaten so severely he never recovers. And that’s a very familiar explanation of how the holocaust was perpetrated – good men standing aside, doing nothing.
Again and again, as the war grinds on, Werner uses his talents to root out members of the resistance – doing what he has to do. I found that both believable and understandable. It also served to raise the stakes. As the story moved towards the climax I was holding my breath and turning the pages (Oops, I mean tapping the screen) as fast as I could. Would Werner do the right thing by Marie -Laure? I wanted to, had to know.
Others, such as the Guardian reviewer Carmen Callil, complain about the overly descriptive language Andrew Doerr uses. She says it made the first one hundred pages hard going. The truth is I barely noticed. I was much more concerned with what was going to happen to Marie-Laure, who in the opening scenes of the novel is sixteen, alone, and unable to read the pamphlets warning the residents of St Malo to evacuate.
Dominic Green writing for the New Republic argues that Doerr has sentimentalised the holocaust. Perhaps, perhaps not. I think he has succeeded in telling a story that gripped me from the first to the last page. And, he made me wonder what might I have done, if I had been in Werner’s shoes.
I happen to believe that the capacity for great evil and great good is in each of us. We are all designed to do what we need to do to survive. And it’s this, that I think Doerr is writing about. What’s more, he can tell a great yarn.
You might also enjoy Claire’s review over at Word by Word.
Have you read All The Light We Cannot See? Would you recommend it?
Categories: On Books