All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr traces two parallels paths of different characters during the Nazi invasion in WWII. Werner is a young orphaned boy plucked from his settings for his albino blond hair and unique ability with a radio and placed in a Nazi school to learn the ways of the Third Reich - ways he regularly questions in his own mind but never possess the gumption to question out loud (I don't entirely fault the character for this, he's a child and the penalty is death, but I do have some huge issue with the way Doerr makes his actions sentimental - he was a trained Nazi - child or not). Marie-Lauer is a blind French girl with a father that is renowned for his work in the museums; museums that are pilfered by Hitler's men during the invasion of France.
The premise of the novel creates a railroad run of both children and how they grew up during this tumultuous time. And for me, until near the end, I didn't find myself caring much if they grew up at all. GASP! Let me be clear - I cared about children in WWII, but Doerr failed to create anything of particular gravity in these children. The novel rendered itself as an "impeccably implausible" story caught in the violence of World War II. I know - that's a horrible thing to say. It's simply that Doerr did not create characters I felt connected to in anyway. At least not his dual protagonists. Werner's sister, Jutta - yes. Frederick who is mocked and beaten for poor eye sight and left in a vegetative state - yes. Marie-Laure's crazy Uncle, Etienne - yes. Her father, Daniel - yes. Madame Manec - Etienne's housekeeper/cook - yes. But Werner and Marie-Lauer fall short in this cast of supporting characters. Marie-Laure and Werner are painted as ghosts almost amongst people actually doing things to defend themselves and their people from Hitler's brutal attack and they float along through the plot with very little impact. (Note: my two star rating is for the supporting cast of characters and their story, had it not been for them this book would have fallen to a one - a rating I rarely give.)
Unfortunately, Doerr's prose style is staccato at best. He uses short, sharp sentences making the first hundred pages exhausting to read. I found myself putting the book down many times and picking up a different novel with stronger prose, better language. In fact, we read this as part of my Ladies January Book Club and many members did not even finish the book - they just couldn't.
American slang enters the dialogue of the characters at times downplaying the research Doerr may have done to create this novel - ten years of research as I understand it and yet, his American background infiltrates the French and German conversation. And my word - nouns are weak and poorly chosen - "no noun sits upon the page without the decoration of at least one adjective, and sometimes, alas, with two or three. And these adjectives far too often are of the glimmering, glowing, pellucid variety. Eyes are wounded, nights are luminous and starlit, seagulls are alabaster. "Fields enwombed with hedges" is almost the last straw" (Green).
Moments of quotable prose like "You know the greatest lesson of history? It's that history is whatever the victor says it is" (Albeit, unoriginal as this has been said before) and "His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers" get lost in a novel that is far too long, far too sentimental about the actions of Nazis, and far too mundane. The shifting point of view made the novel stringent in reading, not inventive and while I cared about Werner and Marie-Lauer in the very, very end; I did not like the ending. If you've read the book - you'll agree me when I say it was a "cop-out" - a 95 year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater Titanic tossing of sacred jewels. For what?
While this novel has garnered extreme attention and holds top spots on best seller lists, it fumbled with me. Then again, I've yet to like a Pulitzer Prize wining novel either - maybe for me the author that creates the novel in order to reach a reader through language and story rather than gimmicks and convoluted metaphors sets better in my world. But, what do I know? I'm editing blank pages. And one day, if I ever do fill those pages with something worth publishing - I know I will not please the world.
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