Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All th light
All th light

I could hardly wait to write today's post because I so thoroughly enjoyed this week's book, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. I am about to gush, but before I do, I should offer a couple of disclaimers:

1) This is not a "beach read" unless, of course, you like intense story lines with your sunscreen.

2) This is not a "read a few pages before going to sleep" kind of book either.  Doerr makes you work for the story by beginning his narrative with multiple characters in different settings and in assorted time periods.  If you're like me, this means reading a few pages before bed makes the plot line really confusing.

No, this book requires your attention in a Goldfinch kind of way (last year's Pulitzer Prize winner). If you have a long flight, this should be your pick. Fortunately, if you decide to lock in, you will be richly rewarded.

I base my opinion on the fact that I adore the way Doerr writes.

He is a master of description, storytelling, and he actually seems to like his characters.

I've pulled a few paragraphs I marked this week and while I really can't provide much context, I hope you can catch a glimpse of his rich style.

For instance, he describes Paris in the days prior to the German invasion this way:

"From a certain angle, the spring seems so calm: warm, tender, each night redolent and composed. And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point."

Can you feel the tension?

And when after all of the rumors the war finally starts, he doesn't just state the fact, instead he writes:

"The war drops its question mark."

Life is hard. Three words are all you need to make that statement.  Instead, Doerr couches his characters in something even more relentless.

"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."

The world starts in on us...

Yes.  Yes, it does.

Even the way he handles foreshadowing is brilliant.  In this lovely snippet below, Doerr is describing a guy who takes responsibility for cutting his fellow soldier's hair.

"Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life, who would have smelled of talc and whisky and put his index finger into men's ears to position thier heads, whose pants and shirts always would have been covered with clipped hairs, who, in his shop, would have taped postcards of the Alps around the circumference of a big cheap wavery mirror, who would have been faithful to his stout wife for the rest of his life -- Neumann One says, 'Time for haircuts.'"

No spoiler alert on the paragraph, just a simple statement.  Can you see what I mean about paying attention?

Even the two sentences below threatened to slip by without notice:

"The afternoon is bright enough, but Berlin seems not to want to accept the sunlight, as though its buildings have become gloomier and dirtier and more splotchy in the months since he last visited. Though perhaps what has changed are the eyes that see it."

Oh I love that!  I often feel Atlanta is bright, but not sunny.  I could picture Berlin and I could imagine the change of the character who is seeing the city differently.

Another quick turn of phrase as a girl listens to her father leaving the home.  Guess which line I love...

"...she listens to the gate clang shut, to the cart's axle bounce as her father pushes it down the rue Vauborel, and to the silence that reinstalls itself after he's gone."

OK - I bolded it for you. How do you make silence an active agent? Just. Like. That.

Last one - When Doerr describes a survivor many years after the war, he briefly tells how the soldier is never the same:

"The small, secure weight of tools along his belt, the smell of intermittent rain, and the crystalline brilliance of the clouds at dusk: these are the only times when Volkheimer feels marginally whole."

The bold is mine again because I love how he puts these two words together...marginally whole. Don't we all relate to this idea on some level?

I'll stop now with one final thought which, given my gushing, may seem odd.  But, as much as I enjoyed this book, I'm 83% certain that I would recommend reading his short stories (Memory Wall Stories) first.  They are every bit as amazing as this book and more accessible.

As for me, I'll likely read everything this guy writes.