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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Short Strains of World War II Story

I've made significant efforts over the past several years to get over my hesitation toward novels that are structured as alternating or intertwined stories. And for the most part, I've been able to overcome that tiny piece of reading neurosis — Jonathan Miles' Want Not was one of my favorite novels of last year, for example.

But then I'll read a story like Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is, by most measures (including its 4.27 rating on Goodreads), a very, very good novel. And I'll again remember why this type of storytelling has a tendency to be hit-or-miss for me.

Doerr's novel is the story of a 16-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure, who takes refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo with her aging great uncle during the German occupation of France. It's also the story of a teenaged German orphan named Werner, who learns how to build and fix radios at an early age, attends an elite German academy, and is sent to the front with a new device he helped invent, the purpose of which is to locate and eliminate enemy radio transmissions. And finally, and to a lesser extent, it's the story of an evil German named von Rumpel who is on the hunt all over Europe during the war for a massive, priceless diamond known as the Sea of Flames that carries with it a legend of immortality.

Amidst a main theme of the things that connect us and the things that divide us, these stories slide back and forth over one another to build up to the real-time action: All three characters wind up in Saint-Malo. In the opening scenes of the novel, the Americans are bombing the town, Werner is trapped in the basement of a hotel with another German soldier named Volkheimer, and Marie-Laure, who has the diamond in her pocket, is taking shelter in the attic of her great uncle's mansion. This all takes place in early August 1944, but the beef of the novel is how everything will eventually get to that point.

These snippets of story are told in not-more-than-two-or-three page sections. Obviously Doerr did this on purpose and for very specific reasons. One suggestion as to why might be that the shorter, almost poetic, pieces stitch his characters closer together structurally, as they eventually maneuver closer together within the plot of the story as well. As well, perhaps he wanted the whole novel to feel like short bits of memories that sort of bleed into each other.

But for me, the effect was that it pushed me further from the characters, and gave the story a choppy, jolting feel which is certainly not the tone Doerr intended, I'd guess. So really, it wasn't actually the intertwining story structure itself that kept me at arm's length, but that each strain of story is so short.

That may seem like an extraordinarily nitpicky criticism for such a generally well-received novel. So please don't get me wrong — Doerr's novel IS astonishing as a piece of fiction and masterful in its pure literary-ness. This is a writer who is as skillful at constructing sentences as any I've ever read. So I did my level best to get over my silly hang-up with the short pieces of story. I wasn't totally successful all the time, but if you're a fan of historical fiction of the uber-literary variety, this is certainly a novel for you.

6 comments:

  1. This novel has really stuck with me since I read it a few months ago, so I'm sad to hear it didn't quite do it for you! I found that the short chapters kept me turning pages; it's so easy to say "just one more chapter" when the chapters are only a few pages.

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    1. Yeah, I guess the the short passages had the opposite affect for me - it gave me an excuse to stop. I should've just gotten over my short-attention-span theater, and plowed on. It's really tough writing about a novel you know is good, and you know lots of people loved, but for a (relatively silly reason) you didn't totally love.

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  2. interesting, I perceived it as getting to know each character each time deeper, just like when you get to know a fiend little by little, one encounter at a time. My own review is here if you wish to read it: http://wordsandpeace.com/2014/08/18/book-review-all-the-light-we-cannot-see-i-love-france-108/

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    1. Good review - thanks. We definitely agree on the fact that it's beautifully written. The passages about the peaches being like liquid sun has really stuck with me - that's just really good.

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  3. Like Leah, I also liked the format and agree that it kept the story moving for me. This book is my favorite read of the year, by far.

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