All the Light We Cannot See is a highly-touted literary fiction novel (historical fiction, I think) from American author Anthony Doerr. This book has won just about every award it could win, including a Pulitzer Prize for literature.
I mean, talk about hyped.
All the Light We Cannot See tested my philosophy of book reviewing as I sat down to write this. Bear with me as I get a little pretentious. At its heart, what is a book review for? Is a book review for me to tell you my opinion of a book, knowing that my opinion is highly subjective? Or is my job as a reviewer to give you as unbiased and objective opinion of this book I personally can, taking my opinions out of it?
I don’t know. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but never has that tension been in starker relief than it is when I think about this book. But more on that at the end.
All the Light We Cannot See centers around a young French girl at the advent of World War 2. Marie a six year old blind girl living with her father, who works as a museum locksmith, in Paris when the Germans invade. Her father is given an extremely valuable blue diamond (which may be real or a replica, he doesn’t know) from the museum and he flees to keep it safe.
At the same time, the story follows a young German boy named Werner who is a technological prodigy and incredibly adept at radios. Using those skills, he joins a top-notch Nazi training school and eventually joins the army.
The plot of All the Light We Cannot See promises so much. There’s a potentially cursed diamond, Nazis, war, spies and subterfuge, really anything you could want. But the actual pace inches forward. It is a long book and, at least at times, you feel that length. It takes a while to build and get going, but you are so invested in the characters that it doesn’t matter much. If anything, you relish the time you get to spend with them.
It isn’t until the latter third or even fourth of the book that anything substantial happens. It is mostly rising action with a somewhat underwhelming climax and then a bit of a prolonged falling action. The falling action doesn’t wrap up everything I wanted it to cover, though. It left me feeling a little flat.
The plot of the book, while intriguing and not bad, isn’t where All the Light We Cannot See shines. I think it does the job, but I would say it isn’t what people love about this book. At least, I don’t think it should be.
In this novel, the characters felt like real people. And I think that’s the highest compliment you can give to an author. Each one of them dripped with meaning and emotions without being overly dramatic. They had fears and wishes and insecurities. They were alive. Honestly, the characters were refreshing.
Even the characters that never appeared “on screen” seemed deep and complex. Marie’s grandfather, though he never actually appeared in the story, was full of backstory and meaning. The main characters were deep, which I’d expect, but even the side characters contained intricacies that I don’t often see.
This wasn’t a small cast either, Doerr managed to fill many pages and many people with deep backstory and importance. I was impressed with his character work in this book.
Normally, I break out the setting and talk about that in its own section, but in All the Light We Cannot See the setting often felt like another character. It almost breathed with purpose and interacted with the other characters in a way that you’d expect a person too. The home Marie lives in, the small coastal town her and her father flee to, the school where Werner, in a lot of ways, grows up, all of these places made lasting impact in much the same way a character would. And I loved every minute of it.
The prose in this book is some of the best I’ve read from a contemporary author in a long time. It was verbose without feeling overly flowery. It was detailed and beautiful without being overly-descriptive. It was vibrant and crafted with such intentionality that every word found an appropriate place. I cannot say enough good things about the prose and I think that alone makes this book worth reading, especially for fellow writers.
However, some of the stylistic choices are where this book lost me. And it comes down solely to my personal preference.
This book has incredibly short chapters that switches the perspective between each one. That breaks the immersion for me. Right as I’m getting into a scene, as I’m stepping into a character’s space, I’m leaving them and trying to do that with a brand new character. I’m fine with changing perspectives and I’m even fine with shorter chapters, but the two of them together doesn’t work for me.
Also, I don’t like books in the present tense. Many people do, and they aren’t wrong. It just isn’t my preference. Probably because I’m not used to it, so when I encounter it, the present tense feels like a flick on the arm and I can’t overlook it. Another thing that broke the immersion.
The story switches back and forth in time at a few different points, which was another thing that turned me off to it. For one thing, it ruins the suspense. In a novel that does a good job of setting up dramatics, knowing where the characters end up after a situation ruins the impact of that moment. If I’m going to tell you a story, I wouldn’t jump around and tell different parts along the timeline, I’d tell it start to finish. I think a book should be the same way.
Also, it referenced 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea pretty extensively and I hate that book.
Like I said, this book tested my philosophy of reviewing. Because, objectively, I can tell it is a wonderful book. It is beautiful and expertly crafted. The prose alone deserves a recommendation. It earned the awards it achieved and I can’t imagine the minute details that constantly bounced inside Anthony Doerr’s mind as he wrote this.
But because of those style choices that I don’t enjoy, I didn’t like this book all that much. I probably won’t read it again. I won’t keep it on my shelf. It didn’t resonate with me. But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
If I were to rate this book on my subjective enjoyment scale, it’d be about a 3. Maybe a tad lower, but definitely in the 2.75 to 3 range.
But I can’t do that. This book doesn’t belong that low. It is far better than that and it isn’t the book’s fault that I have those preferences.
So I’m giving it a 4.5 out of 5.
God help us all.