Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can't Keep It To Myself: All The Light We Cannot See

With so many novels over the last few years which have been set during the Second World War, sometimes it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Granted, if it's a particular era of interest to you, there are lots of great novels to read. But if you're looking for just the best of the best, it can be a little trickier to navigate. That's why I'm sharing this particular novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, as I personally found it to be one of the most beautifully written and deeply affecting historical novels set in that period.

Half of the novel is Marie Laure's story. A young French girl who went blind at the age of six, cared for by her locksmith father in Paris. He builds her ingenious scale models of their neighborhood, helping her to find her way around and become more autonomous. Then the Germans take occupation of the city, and Marie Laure travels with her father to the small seaside town of Saint-Malo. Here they stay with her father's half-crazy uncle and the uncle's housekeeper, hiding something which may either have no value at all or be worth more than all of Saint-Malo combined. The other half of the novel (it is told in alternating chapters) is a world away: Werner and his sister Jutta are German orphans, poor and forgotten, until Werner begins to attract attention for his extraordinary ability to build and fix radios, a talent which ultimately wins him a scholarship at a brutal, elite military academy. It is here that he becomes one of the most specialized trackers of the Resistance. It is in this capacity that Werner begins to travel, first to Russia, then later to Saint-Malo, where his path converges with that of Marie Laure.

In my experience, there is a fine line between descriptions so perfectly detailed that the reader finds herself transported, and monotony--in this case, the former is most definitely true. When writing about Marie Laure, Doerr is infinitely careful to only describe what she might hear or taste or smell or touch, unless another character is describing it to her. But in limiting himself to what he can express to readers, he creates such a tactile experience, including descriptions of how sand feels or what an airplane sounds like as it passes overhead which take the reader aback with their freshness and distinction. And in the episodes which follow Werner through the heart of the Hitler Youth, it is through the eyes of one who absorbs knowledge and is constantly calculating, aware of how tenuous his survival is. This is, most assuredly, a book which will leave lasting impressions on every one of its readers. Most assuredly recommended.

Also available in large print and audio.

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