I’ve set myself a target / challenge of reading 40 books this year. It might seem like a few but I cleared 30 or so last year and I’m 3 down already. The first book I read in 2017 is going to take some beating though. It really cost me some sleep.
Some time last year I saw All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr on a table in the local (chain) bookshop. Immediately I was struck by the cover (I’m pretty sure a lot of others do judge books this way) even before I read the blurb on the back which well and truly got my interest. However; my TBR pile was already well stocked so it stayed on the table. Until it appeared under the Christas tree.
I’ve heard some people bemoan the historical fiction genre as limited and this has always baffled me. Aside from the opportunities offered by the ‘what if / alternative timelines’ explored by the likes of Fatherland, even small parts of history such as the Second World War offer a canvas so vast and wide as to be pretty much limitless in opportunities for invention and story while the gravitas of events is always going to add some emotional heft and that’s certainly the case with All the Light We Cannot See.
Thing is, with all that emotional heft and known touch points, it’s easy for historical novels to overdo it and try and hit every (see City of Theives) but that’s not the case here. While it’s clear from the get go that this is going to be an emotional novel – Marie-Laure is a blind girl whose mother died in childbirth while Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in a harsh German mining town, Doerr doesn’t over egg the pudding. He doesn’t need to:
“Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.”
The story gets started with the night before the near destruction of Saint-Malo in 1944 before tracing the timelines of its two leads back to their childhoods and briskly bringing them to the present and to each other in one hell of a climax. Told in present tense, the prose is short and bullet sharp and keeps the momentum of the story ripping along, there’s no time to dwell on emotional impact (perhaps making it all the more hard-hitting when it comes) and there are moments when it’s clear that Doerr is himself wrapped up in the story and just letting it unfold and getting out of its way. An absolute joy to read.
A story of science and the power of radio, Nazi occupation, wonderment and the question of morality, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a genuinely great novel- it’s a good thriller crossed with a damn good stab at great literature. It’s been pretty much highly received and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (I’m also a big fan of the previous winner, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch).