I loved this one.
I wasn’t really sure about All the Light We Cannot See when I decided to put a hold on it at my library (which has quickly escalated into an addiction in case you were wondering, I have approximately 20 books on holds which will deliver them to my library over the next 6 months). I based my selection of the book on its winning Goodreads Book of the Year –Historical Fiction and the glowing review of a friend on that site. My only concern was that I have read a lot of books set in 1930s/1940s Europe and wasn’t sure that I really wanted to spend more time there just now. As it turned out that wasn’t actually a problem and I devoured this masterly crafted work and sped through it over the course of three days.
The structure of this book is its biggest strength. We are on two timelines throughout – in one we are in August 1944 in Saint-Malo, France during the firebombing. In the second we travel from 1934 to August 1944 chronicling the movements and links between the characters in Saint-Malo. This doesn’t seem like it should be a gripping structure, but boy is it. Each chapter alternates between different characters, and for approximately 90% of the book we are moving between Werner, orphan in Germany’s coal country, radio/electrical genius and soon to be sucked up into the Nazi war machine and Marie-Laure, daughter of the master of keys and locks and the National Natural History Museum in Paris, and on the run with her father who has been tasked with keeping a piece of the collection safe from the invading German forces. Oh, and she’s been blind since the age of 6. It’s basically the same as the set up for Eleanor and Park, minus the love story and the knowing each other part.
I can’t seem to capture in words how captivating this narrative device truly is in this outing. Everywhere All the Light We Cannot See is mentioned the fact that Anthony Doerr spent a decade working on it is mentioned. Initially I was annoyed, I don’t tend to put a lot of weight into how long or how short someone’s writing process is. Everyone’s process is their own, you know? But as I worked my way through the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure, and the details started to line up, and the tension and mood were so expertly crafted, and the topics so lovingly brought to life, I understood why people wanted me to know how long Doerr spent, because the craftsmanship of a decade shines through like a well-made piece of furniture.
If there was a small stumble it was near the end. I had assumed that the ending of the book and the various narrative threads would wind up at the end of the war, and probably around August 1944, which we kept bouncing to and back from. It doesn’t. The narrative makes several additional jumps forward in the final 30 pages and while it was perhaps nice to see where these characters ended up, it was also somehow more than I needed. I think if the last jump forward hadn’t happened, I would have been completely satisfied.
This is however, my first five star book of the year, and I don’t give those out lightly. If you like historical fiction, read this.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.