Book blog

1000 before 30 #31: All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

A hard start, languishing middle and tug at the heartstrings ending, ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ has rather sparse light moments within its pages.

True, my expectations of a charm-filled read would have been dampened somewhat by a book about World War II with a synopsis that combines with “a blind girl and her father…” in the same sentence. But this book truly tried to milk the helplessness of a disabled girl, who like in any tragic Hollywood story, was always set to survive Nazis, bombs, adversity and dangerous diamond hunters.

So let’s sum it up: a blind girl and her father, who worked at the Natural History Museum in Paris, flee the city as the war breaks out and the Germans invade. They are holding what might be rather precious cargo, as an infamous diamond called ‘the sea of flames’ is cast three times and sent in different directions to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

In the meantime a young German boy (Werner) is growing up in an orphanage discovers he has a rather useful talent – fixing radios. He and his sister begin listening to forbidden French broadcasts about stories, the only alternative to the Nazi propaganda on the airwaves. As the war intensifies, Werner joins the Nazi Youth and is torn between what he sees and how he truly feels about the bullying and (frankly disturbing) torture that goes on.

Both lives, which intertwine skillfully throughout the narrative, end up colliding, as an older Werner meets Marie-Laure, who is part of the resistance, as he tries to track her uncle’s radio signals.

When I put the story down I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. I’ll admit the struggle through a slow three quarters of the book, where the storyline just didn’t grasp me with its slow buildup. I commend any author that decides to tackle World War II or any other conflict that is so seared into the psyche of our generations – it’s hard to tread the narrow path that avoids making light of the horror and exposing unending atrocities that would make any novel unreadable.

But this book manages to be at once dull and then unbearably painful from chapter to chapter, making it a rather lopsided read. One second we are watching boys lined up with ice cold buckets of water to torture a prisoner of war, the next we are in the museum hearing the story of how the diamond is cursed.

If you’re wondering why I decided to pick it up in the first place, I should confess that it was in fact the first task set by my work book club.

After talking to my fellow book clubbers, I thought the review deserved another look. When analysing the themes, the symbolisms and the question of the survival (or not) of the characters, one could argue that the plot-line is accomplished. Is it a coincidence that everyone around Marie-Laure and her precious diamond die? Is it too much of a coincidence that the very voice that inspired Werner to fix radios is the voice that he is tracking because it is helping the resistance?

Upon reflection, I give the book 3.5/5 stars. It’s just a shame it took the opinions of the book club to unearth some of its brilliance.


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