I am not a literary critic. I did terribly in English class when it came time to discuss the many layers of meaning, symbolism, and metaphor that often appear in modern literature. My deepest enjoyment of reading comes mostly from the surface – I love plot and character. This is all to tell you that while you may read my book reviews here and think, “What are Maggie’s deep thoughts on this hidden aspect of book X?” I’m probably not going to provide them. And if a book is good, and universally acclaimed, what can I really say that will sway any reader even if I didn’t like it?
That’s not quite the case with “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. It has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list (so we know people are buying it). It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, among others. It currently has a 4.31/5 rating on Goodreads with nearly 380,000 ratings, which if you’ve been on Goodreads before, you know is very very good. So even if I didn’t like it, that would be a drop in the bucket.
Fortunately I did. There are so many books written about and set in World War II, that it’s beginning to feel like if you want to be a bestseller and critically acclaimed, that’s what you’ve got to write about. Heck, even the storis of people fighting in the French Resistance seem to be having a heyday. But AtLWCS takes this story, and twists it slightly. Yes, it’s about the French Resistance, but it’s through “the eyes” and ears of a blind preteen French girl, Marie-Laure. And not only that, but the novel shares the narration with a teenage German boy, Werner. We are told at the beginning of the story that their lives have converged in some way, and the backstory builds up through the course of the novel, showing us slowly what is happening in that “now” moment.
I thin it’s easy for a modern audience to look at Nazi characters and think, “Oh, every single one of them was a completely terrible human being, who all committed war crimes, and who all believed in every iota of what Hitler espoused.” But this book did something I never expected – it gave me a character in Werner who I understood why he did what he did. When there are no other opportunities in life, and someone wants to give you the chance to gain knowledge and experiment scientifically (and this is about radios, not creepy eugenics type of stuff), while taking care of basic needs that have always felt like they were escaping you…you say might yes. It helps that Werner is fictional, that we know what he is thinking, and his motivations. Yes, accepting the actions of those around you when those actions are inherently evil and malicious tips you towards the “not a good person” side of the scale.
So maybe I’m not good at discussing and writing down my ideas on deep philosophical issues instigated by books. But this is the kind of book that will make you think those deep thoughts, and wrestle with yourself. Where do you stand? What is acceptable? How far is too far?
Is it a good book? Yes. I don’t think there’s much argument to the contrary. Is it a book I would recommend? Yes. Definitely.
Details: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. First published 2014 by Scribner.