The Short Version: A young girl in Paris goes blind shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In Germany, a young boy finds his calling in building/fixing radios and becomes a part of the ruthless military machine. Their stories converge around Saint-Malo near the end of the war in a single moment of beautiful goodness.
The Review: Why do we continue to write about (and read about) World War II? It remains one of the blackest marks on humanity, the scars of which still haven’t entirely faded – but it feels so passé, in a way, to write about that war. What can you tell us about that war that is more interesting or more impactful than writing about the wars we’re currently embroiled in? Or even the wars that followed? When a book is well-written and the story engrossing (which All The Light We Cannot See qualifies for in both categories), the reader can’t complain too much – but heaven help me, I sigh a little resignedly when I see another critically lauded and immensely popular World War II novel. I just don’t care about it in the way I might care about, say, an Iraq novel (see: Redeployment) – or even, I don’t know, something about the Napoleonic Wars or something we don’t read about all the time. World War II just feels… overdone, as it were.
But, stepping off that soapbox for a moment, it doesn’t much matter: Doerr’s book is actually quite good. It’s a propulsive read, not for the plot necessarily but for the way he breaks the book into (as Christopher Hermelin, my So Many Damn Books co-host, called them) “James Patterson chapters”: each one is only a few pages at most, like tiny gems surrounding the setting of a larger stone. And on any given page, you’re bound to find a beautiful turn of phrase or an exceptional rendering of a moment. There’s a slight tweeness to the model city that Marie-Laure’s father builds for her (first in Paris and then in Saint-Malo) so that she can learn the city and get around with ease, but it’s the sort of twee that makes you smile. It’s the sort of thing you could see Wes Anderson putting to film tremendously well.
Marie-Laure’s plot, however, doesn’t hold the same weight as Werner’s. A young man growing up in an increasingly Nazi Germany, we see him struggle with right and wrong at nearly every stage of his life. He’s born with a gift (and Doerr’s descriptions of his electrical engineering and tinkering are perhaps the most transcendent passages in the book, at least for me) and knows that his gift is being put to use by evil men. But he also knows that he has to survive – that he cannot, like his friend at school Frederick, be fingered as the weakest. The brutality visited upon Frederick is one of the hardest parts of the book to bear, especially the way that Werner must step to the side and the fact that the reader is rooting for him to do so, so that he may save his own skin, even as we shout for Frederick to shape up and protect himself.
But when Werner goes off to war, the staggering violence of the conflict feels distant. He’s tasked with monitoring the countryside for rogue radio transmissions, finding the resistance then siccing the muscle on them – and they are ruthless. But the brutality never comes through, even in the descriptions of blood and viscera. Doerr’s prose is too beautiful and these scenes, as well as the scenes of the bombing of Saint-Malo, are weakened by that beauty. The climactic confrontation (skirting spoilers here, so my apologies for the vagueness) in Saint-Malo takes place almost entirely off-screen, a choice that feels more like a cop-out than a conscious turning-away.
And yet these problems, any of which might sink a lesser author into mediocrity, don’t really matter because Doerr has such a gift with his prose. It’s reminiscent of the way I feel about Ann Patchett’s writing: there’s something quietly, ethereally beautiful about it. I can think of the individual moments of this novel that I loved and they exist in a sort of perfect light; it’s only when you bring them all together that their luster is diminished. Part of this is, perhaps, due to the short chapters and part of it to Doerr’s coolness in the face of very hot experience. It is, at the end of the day, not quite the sum of its parts.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The praise for Doerr’s writing is well-earned and I have little doubt that the book will make a serious run at the Rooster in this year’s Tournament of Books (its popularity almost assures a Zombie resurrection even if it gets bounced in the early rounds) – but it felt like a beautiful version of a story (or type of story, anyway) that I’ve already heard many times. The particulars are different, of course, but at the end of the day it’s a well-written novel about adversity during World War II. It was pleasurable to read but ultimately nothing very special.