Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Where to begin?

I read About Grace by Antony Doerr while I was stumbling through my first novel and the beauty of each sentence so affected me I almost gave up (writing). It was going to be too hard.  Since then, whenever I’m faced with snow – real or imagined – some of his words return.

Obscurely though, since that first fling, I never sought him out. Then recently, I noticed my daughter was reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was like being reminded of an old school friend and doing a Facebook search – I downloaded this on the spot and began it that night.

All The Light We Cannot See is a story about two children caught up in the atrocities of World War 2. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood. Over many months she memorises its every detail and after countless frustrating, furious and tearful attempts, she finally finds herself able to move around the city alone. When the Nazis invade Paris they leave their home for the relative safety of Saint-Malo where an elderly relative, cared for by a kindly matron, lives in a six story house by the sea.

The other child, Werner, is an orphan, who along with his sister is raised in a home in a mining town in Germany. His future is down the mines. Obscurity, an early death. By chance he finds a broken radio in a back alley near the orphanage and becomes obsessed by it. He spends all his free time rebuilding it from scraps of rubbish, until word gets around of his special talent and he gains a reputation, which eventually reaches the ears of someone important. He gains a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth – a way out of the mines, Werner says to himself, flattered by the attention, and the cake he was offered when he easily fixes the army man’s radio. Only his sister gets a sense of foreboding and begs him to refuse the offer. But it was too late for that. In no time Werner was in the back of a truck tracking resistance radios, one by one, shutting his eyes to the killings, sweeping through occupied France to Saint-Malo, where we know Marie-Laure lives, alone now with her great uncle in the tall house by the sea, playing their part to save their beloved France…

I don’t remember if I was gripped immediately, all I remember is that those following weeks tore me apart. It’s not just that every sentence is a work of art all on its own, worthy of a second look, but that it’s so scary and inevitable and gripping and important and relevant, that to be honest I could barely bring myself to pick it up, because I knew that I was about to be really really scared and sick and ashamed. Anthony Doerr does that – he draws us in, so that to turn away would make us inhuman – would mean we didn’t care. It may be too late for all those children who were sucked into the killing machine of that war but if I couldn’t even stay with them during the pages of a novel would I turn away in Syria, Iraq, Palestine – all those other places that are to come – would I? Do I? Well of course I do – we all do – every day. So I read on; sometimes, to my shame, galloped on, to get it over with, to find out – I had to find out, though I knew there’d be no comfort  in it – that’s another thing Doerr would never do  – he’d never cheat the truth.

And as I write this, a few weeks later, I’m moved all over again… filled with the horror, the wonder, the unbearable love I felt for the two of them, the genius of Anthony Doerr, not a careless word as he courageously describes the sights and sounds of the very worst and best of what it means to be human, an assault on my senses which I shall never forget.

I will not wait so long to download the next one. And nor should you.

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