Monday, January 19, 2015

Review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

It has been hard to pick up a new book since I finished All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s the kind of book that lingers, in a terrific way. The novel is both immensely readable AND provocative. The questions it poses are really compelling, but the questions don't step in the way of the storytelling.

I think that this is one of those experiences that is best discovered by the reader, so I won’t get into a big plot summary here. There’s a young German orphan who is being groomed to be a soldier in World War II.  And there’s a blind French girl in Paris who flees the German invasion with her father. You know that the two are going to connect at some point.

When I first started this novel, I thought it was going to be too precious. It has a bit of a fairy tale feel, and I was suspicious. But this is a book that is exploring humanity and war (and humanity in war), and the author’s skill is making the atrocities in the story both horrifying and quiet. There are no extra words, no extraneous graphic images. Yet I found the tiny moments of terror and loss to be breathtaking.

These are the questions the story makes me consider:

If going against your moral code will save you, will you do it?

If you know that sticking with your moral code will kill you, will you do it?

If you know that your own ambition will put those you love in danger, will you take on that risk?

If you negate your own ambition to prevent putting your loved ones in danger, what are the consequences?

Do we push for technological innovation when the same technologies can be used for good as for harm?

I do have one quibble with the book.  For a story that offers so many complex characters, why is the blind girl the only main character that seems simply “pure” or “good?” While her decisions are central to the plot development, she doesn’t wrestle with moral dilemmas in the same way that others do. I wonder whether her disability is part of the issue, if both writers and readers struggle with a more complicated portrayal of disability.

If you’d like to read an interview with the author, here’s my favorite.

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