“All the light we cannot see” by Anthony Doerr. This is a book that invoked mixed feelings and I didn’t felt inclined to review it immediately after reading.
The book is set during WW2 with two parallel tracks that finally intersect as one would expect. One revolves around a blind French girl Marie-Laure and her family and their experiences as German forces advance into France while the other track follows an albino orphan boy named Werner living in an orphanage in Germany. He is a gifted child with a prodigious streak displayed in his flair for science, ability to fix anything, and penchant for tinkering with radios.
His talent is soon discovered and earns him a way out of the bleak future of working as a miner to getting trained in a young Nazi boot camp/military academy to join an elite cadre and being assigned a task to track, intercept the radio signals of the resistance. The story progresses driven by both their points of view, and their respective subjective experiences apart from those of the other supporting characters leading up to the conclusion. The presence of a legendary sea of flames diamond that is entrusted to Marie’s father and later her, to ensure it does not fall into the wrong hands, not only drives a significant portion of the plot but also lends the book a magical fable-like quality.
The narrative is exquisite with splendid attention to detail and could tell that the author has crafted the lines with great finesse and utmost care that tingles the literary taste buds and dazzles with verbal glamour.
Plenty of brilliant quotable excerpts that stay with you, though literary embellishments taken too far in historical fiction has the potential to dwell only on the surface level disconnecting from the complex themes and brutal reality of that time. And somehow undermining the horror that marked that period and reducing it to entertaining literary melodrama, though that might not have been the intention of the author. In the process of making the narrative spectacular and brilliantly glow, it seems to have created a heavy and glimmering layer of sentimentality that diverts from, obscures, distorts the true horror, dread, and emotions of that period. This made the novel fall short in my view and left a bitter after-taste of inadequacy in its substance and ethical ambiguity. Had it been set in an alternate time period or reality not coinciding with WW2, the effect and impact of the book for me would have been very different and more positively received. The absence of any non-elusive references to the holocaust not only feels conspicuous but causes the shadow of the holocaust to grimly linger at the edges of every page and the attempt to equate the Allied bombing to Nazi atrocities, feels incongruous and leaves one wondering.
Some quotes from the book –
“We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.”
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?”
“What the war did to dreamers.”
― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Would love to hear your thoughts on this, if you have read it. While the novel in terms of the narrative, character sketches and flow sparkled with literary glitter it filled me with unease and I didn’t feel inclined to write a proper review. I guess it is an unpopular opinion considering the book is garnering rave reviews and is a Pulitzer prize winner. It took me a while to reflect and identify what it was about the book that bothered me.