Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

A coworker of mine who works at a bookstore loaned this book to me and then kept on bugging me about when I was going to read it after having made it seem like this was a difficult book to read.  Truth be told, this book has all the hallmarks of contemporary literary fiction as it relates to warfare [1].  It has impossibly brilliant children who happen to be without either one or both of their parents, a look at the life of young people in times of war, bittersweet unrequited love (spoiler alert), self-sacrifice, and the ultimate triumph of goodness over greed and violence.  It is little surprise that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, as it is a feast of little telling details that return over and over again as well as puzzles as complex and satisfying as those discussed in the book, where a young woman reads about Captain Nemo while being chased by someone just as monomaniacal as that famous character.  Obviously, this book is not for everyone, but it is the sort of book that one could easily see being turned into an Oscar-baity movie that is nominated for a ton of awards.

What really makes this book work is the layering and complexity of it.  As noted above, this book faithfully fulfills the genre conventions of literary convention and tends to reward the reader for being aware of the references the book makes to other famous and well-known books.  At its core, the book has three intersecting plots, one of them concerning a blind young woman named Marie-Laure, whose father works for the French Museum of Natural History making locks and trying to keep a cursed diamond safe from the Nazis and whose great-uncle runs a radio program.  This radio program, of course, is heard by a poor but mechanically brilliant German orphan whose skill leads him to be sought after as a radio technician by the Nazis and whose work leads him to St. Malo, where Marie-Laure and her uncle live alone after her father is arrested by a monomaniacal and dying Nazi gemologist who is obsessed with finding the diamond hidden by Marie-Laure’s father.  There are layers within layers and massive repercussions about this novel and skips forward and backward in time that demonstrate that everything will make sense, and when it does, it is devastating and full of darkly significant poetic justice.

Ultimately, this sprawling novel of over 500 pages left me feeling deeply concerned about the author’s view of contemporary life.  The book is labeled and marketed as a look at how people against the odds are good to each other, but it’s not that simple.  The characters of the book range from the innocent and those on the side of angels like the broken Etienne, struggling with PTSD from WWI, the blind but clever Marie-Laure, and the idealistic Jutta–all of whom receive a similar fate to those who have grave doubts and who struggle to overcome them, whose fates are the most tragic and bitter, to those who are clearly not on the side of angels and whose fates are richly deserved.  It is the fate of those in the middle that trouble me the most, as I do not see myself as someone who is angelic and innocent nor diabolical, but rather someone whose life is full of danger and divided loyalties and moral complexity.  The way this author views such people as mere cannon fodder in order to make the world safe for those who truly are innocents is a view that deeply troubles me, for I can easily see how I might be asked at some point to engage in risky and dangerous activity or be called upon to sacrifice myself so that those who are innocent and not so corrupted by this wicked world can live in a better one after evil is overcome.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

  1. Pingback: Why U No Finish: The Far River | Edge Induced Cohesion

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