It was American writer Antony Doerr’s fifth published work, All the Light We Cannot See, which catapulted him into literary greatness. Just picking up the novel, it is laden with beautiful words for Doerr written by some of the biggest names in literature, such as M.L. Steadman (The Light Between Oceans) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), as well as critical publications like the Times and the Guardian. Already a New York Times bestseller, Doerr was nominated for, and subsequently won, the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, and it was then that this book made its way onto the bedside tables of many an avid reader, including mine.
Opening the book, past all the loving recommendations from very important people, we are immediately thrown into German-occupied Saint-Malo, a walled navy stronghold in north-western France, on May 7th 1944. It is here we meet “The Girl”, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who has been blind since the age of six and uses her father’s moulds of cities to memorise how to get around. She’s holed up in her great-uncle’s house alone, with the buzzing of Allied bombs overhead.
Then there is “The Boy”. Werner Pfennig is an eighteen-year-old Private in the German military, fighting the Allied Bombings from the Hotel of Bees in Saint-Malo. We’re barely given a glimpse of this world until we’re thrown back to the beginning of the war, which is where these character’s stories really start.
Marie-Laure’s idyllic childhood in Paris with her father ends when Germany invades France, and they are forced to flee to Saint-Malo, leaving her beloved braille Jules Verne books and the Museum of Natural History behind. It is that same rise of power in Germany that gives orphaned Werner hope for the future as he enlists into the Hitler Youth as a way to flee life working in a coal mine.
The story jumps back and forth between different stages of the war, and the non-chronological storytelling sparks intrigue into the book’s resolution. Doerr’s character and world development is second to none. Marie-Laure is an exquisite character, and the mindset of Werner is complex and highly-developed. The world, furthermore, is well done, and it’s a credit to Doerr as how he subtly adapts and changes his character’s world view, processes and personality as the war progresses. He weaves the small clues towards a bigger picture between the pages, but with very little intrigue within the book and these clues few and far between, it can be a struggle to really care what the “bigger picture” really is.
Despite this, All the Light We Cannot See is a book you have to work for.
Though it is set in the Second World War, there is very little tension. There is no overarching sense of danger for any of the characters. My biggest gripe is the pacing – it’s a 510 page book (I have the 2015 paperback edition with the photograph cover by Mark Owen) but with its plodding pacing, you are left waiting for something important and heart-wrenching to happen. Fifty pages later, you’re still waiting for that same something, only for the book to deliver it some seventy pages onwards. For this reason, it’s not a book I wanted to devour. Indeed, I left it forgotten for many days on my bedside table.
The pacing has been substituted for elegant prose and a well-thought out construct of the world the characters are living in. Though I enjoyed Doerr’s writing, with some passages hauntingly beautiful, I did find some parts over-stylised and detrimental to the storyline. I had also expected this book to wreck me emotionally – perhaps I was caught up in the hype after its Pulitzer Prize win, or had considered it closer with other books such as Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief – but despite how I wanted this book to stay with me for a long time, it didn’t.
All the Light We Cannot See was written by Anthony Doerr and published in 2014 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. It is available where all good books are sold, or your local library.