Wednesday, January 14, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Goddess of History looked down to earth. Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved.
The Goodreads Choice Awards were released last month and All the Light We Cannot See, winner in the Historical Fiction category, looked so so good and I was anxious to read. Santa (Mom) sent me Anthony Doerr's novel set in war-torn 1940s Europe, which averages a whopping 4.2 out of 5 rating on Goodreads. And I trust that.

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Pages: 544
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Historical Fiction
My Rating: 4/5

Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks. When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure's agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall. 

In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.

I really enjoyed getting to know one of the novel's primary settings (also appearing on the book cover), Saint-Malo, a fortress town on the northwestern coast of France. Saint-Malo played an essential role in the last-ditch effort of Axis resistance during WWII, but is often overlooked as film and books tend to focus more on prominent locales. Also a refreshing departure from the "typical WWII retelling" was the character of the young German soldier. Werner was forced to enlist before he turned 18, but was so poor, confined to his hometown, and ignorant that he didn't have enough sense to think, 'Hey, Hitler. This isn't cool.' He just went with the flow of his comrades. This was both oddly endearing,  horrifying, and incredibly pathetic.

Anthony Doerr's slow progression of events leading to the war were so ominous and fantastic. It started with a smell. Little Marie-Laure in Paris could smell the faint odor of oil drifting in from the east. The impending doom and gloom of the war to come was palpable.

Doerr's ability to paint a scene so quickly and completely is something few authors can muster. For example:
In January 1942, Werner goes to Dr. Hauptmann in his glowing, fierily office, twice as warm as the rest of the castle, and asks to be sent home. The little doctor is sitting behind his big desk with an anemic-looking roasted bird on a dish in front of him. Quail or dove or grouse. Rolls of schematics on his right. His hounds splay on the rug before the fire.
He summons all your senses with just a few sentences. I am cozy-warm. And I can smell that damn roasted bird. I'm hungry. This was a beautiful book filled with poetic passages. I am insanely jealous of Doerr's seemingly effortless ability to begin and wrap up chapters so quickly and gracefully.

THAT BEING SAID, I didn't deduct points for nothin'. 

I was so put off by the cross-country Nazi pursuit of the rare diamond. I thought it was cheesy. The folklore about the Sea of Flames was great, but the German huntsman was obnoxious and evoked a less badass version of Hans Landa. Plus the shitty Monuments Men movie spawned a lot of Nazi plunder talk/articles/documentaries this past year. I've had my fill.

Image source: Socially Relevant

The characters were fine. When bad things would happen to them I didn't really sympathize. It could be my cold sick heart (I did have the flu while reading this) or it could be that they were unable to establish any character/reader emotional connection, good or bad.

A majority of the second half of the novel was repetitive and I think editing some of it out would have done wonders. Werner rides around in a truck. Werner reminisces about times with his sister. Werner locates radios. Rinse. Repeat. I was bored by his story after awhile. If I had one of his janky old antennas, I would have inserted it up my nose, into my brain, and performed a lobotomy.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my bookshelf. I thought Werner's story in the middle was kind of a slog and Hans-Landa-Wannabe was a pain, but the writing more than made up for any dislike of plot. Doerr could describe a bowel movement and make it sound lovely.

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