Have you read…?All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 

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All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015. The book is an epic. It spans an 80 year period but the vast majority of the story takes place during World War 2. It follows the lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphaned German boy with a talent for radio engineering and mathematics. When the Nazis occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, flee Paris and take refuge with Marie-Laure’s great uncle, Etienne, in St Malo. Marie-Laure’s father is a skilled craftsman and constructs models of the neighbourhoods where she lives so that she may learn to navigate the outside world alone.  Werner’s skills see him recruited by the Nazis to detect and monitor the activities of partisans.  The story is told in story parallel – Marie-Laure’s life alongside Werner’s and, obvious from the outset, is that Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives are going to intersect, and that some event will occur that will rip Marie-Laure’s father away from her.  A further dimension to the story is that Marie-Laure’s father has been entrusted by the Museum with the supposedly cursed diamond, the Sea of Flames. This is being sought by the cancer stricken Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who is charged with collecting art and valuables for the Nazi regime.

I had this book on my ‘to read’ list so was very happy to borrow it from Isabel when she offered it to me. My mum was reading, and raving, about it, as were the other members of her book club. Isabel said it was ‘okay’ but not her favourite. Which way would I fall? I’m siding with Isabel. I didn’t not enjoy the book, but I didn’t find it a stellar read. It was quite nicely written, but I found the structure fragmented the story, and there was an imbalance in the strength of the multiple storylines running throughout the novel.

Whilst I do not have an objection to parallel storylines, the constant alternating between these two characters hindered my ability to immerse myself in either character’s story. The chapters are very short – one to five pages – so there is very little opportunity to become absorbed by one character’s story before we are shifted to the other character. For me, the Marie-Laure storyline had much greater potential to be engaging than Werner’s. I liked seeing the way her father, and then her uncle, built a world for her that she could touch, feel and imagine. Werner’s storyline I found quite bland. I feel that perhaps Werner’s storyline was to enlighten the reader about military life during the war, in contrast to Marie-Laure’s individual, daily life experiences with the war as a backdrop. Maybe I have read too many war novels and seen too many films and documentaries (I live with some serious war history students) but there was nothing in Werner’s story that I found to be particularly enlightening or engaging. The von Rumpel storyline brought in another aspect of the Nazi regime and its desire to amass a collection of art and artefacts but the characterisation of the infirm von Rumpel was, for me, a little too broadly drawn so that he became a slavering, grotesque monster that was bordering on caricature. One positive aspect to the brevity of the chapters was that it did keep me reading! I found myself thinking ‘okay, one page of Werner (or von Rumpel) then I can get back to Marie-Laure’.

In addition, the book is not linear in its time frame. We start out at day one of the siege of St Malo in 1944, then go back to 1934, forward to day two of the siege, back to 1940, forward to day three, and so it goes on. As with the parallel storylines, I don’t have a problem with non-linear structure in itself but I found in the context of this novel, it continued to further fragment the story and drag out the time it took to reach the real action I was waiting for – how would Marie-Laure and Werner meet? What would be the nature of their relationship upon this meeting?

So… would I recommend this novel? It didn’t engage me but loads of people have loved it so perhaps you should give it a go so you can make up your own mind. Yes, at 530 pages it is long, but it is not a difficult read. I’d love to know what you think if you do read it. Or perhaps you already have? Am I being too harsh? It does always feel a little awkward being critical of a prize-winning novel!

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10 thoughts on “Have you read…?All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  1. Hello! (Waving furiously but timidly, having been gone so long)…..!! I had much the same relationship with the book – no, actually, not the book – the author! Loved so much about this book but just really got tired of all the ‘tricks’ the author used, which just got distracting after a while…..(made jumbles yesterday; thought of you! Love how gifted recipes do that!)…..Helen xx

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    1. Good to see you again, Helen! Yes, I think if had the potential to be great but maybe he tried to be a little bit fancy. I think it is perhaps similar in its intent to The Book Thief (one of my all time favourites) but didn’t quite get there. Perhaps a rigorous edit would have helped. Go jumbles!!

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      1. Yes, definitely needed a rigorous edit! Hah, funny you should mention the Book Thief: I love the parts of it that I’ve read but I have never actually managed to finish it (I got so involved in the characters I couldn’t bear to read on to see how it ends for them….)…..yep…..go jumbles!!! Hope you’ve had a great weekend, Helen xxx

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  2. What a great, thoughtful review. Carolyn. Chuffed that you mentioned my opinions! I agree that the jumping between characters does hinder your ability to fully immerse yourself in either one. I actually enjoyed the images of Werner and his sister listening to the radio illicitly at the orphanage, but not much else from Werner’s story really stayed with me. I liked the bit with Marie-Laure hiding in the top of the house while the man was trying to find the jewel, and her blind navigation of the streets of St Malo. But yes, overall, I wasn’t SO gripped. If you want a really amazing WW2 novel I would go with The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australia’s own Richard Flanagan. SO good. I love The Book Thief too! I didn’t see the movie because I didn’t want to ruin the book for myself. Am seeing Son of Saul today with Erin (my podcast pal) so that’s another WW2 film, I hope it’s good. Happy Labour Day to you! xx

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    1. Yes, there were some nice scenes but didn’t really pull at my heart strings too much – only the tragic scene with Werner and the mother and daughter moved me. Lots of plaudits for Richard Flanagan’s book. It sounds very moving. The movie of The Book Thief was pretty good but whilst it captures the story, it can’t capture Zusak’s beautiful language. Every review I’ve seen of Son of Saul has said it’s a masterpiece do it will be interesting to see what you think.

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  3. Carolyn, I loved, loved, loved this book! I enjoyed the parallel structure and the different time periods, and I found Werner’s story just as interesting as Marie’s, particularly with the radio and the voices of the two French men. Isn’t it interesting – we have agreed on many other books but not this one! I am always intrigued at our bookclub meetings when we are a divided group about a particular book – makes for interesting discussions!

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    1. It is interesting, isn’t it, Karen?! I do think it had the potential to be right up my alley but it just missed for me. I agree that the Werner’s listening to the radio and then the realisation of what he was listening to was quite nice. For me, I think I would have enjoyed it more if ML’s story was told first, then Werner, and then have them come together rather than the constant alternating. Or perhaps have just combined a few chapters before flipping to the other character.

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