Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE


I found Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE to be a remarkable read.  But, as with THE GOLDFINCH, not for the reasons routinely cited in the reviews.  Many who hated ATLWCS said that the latter half of the narrative fell apart.  One reader, a particularly abrasive soul, even went so far as to reference the exact page (151) that caused her to put down the book for good.  For me, ironically, up to page 151 or so, ATLWCS made the list the most boring books I’ve ever read. 

And I’ll admit that if the book hadn’t won a Pulitzer, and made a number of other short lists, I likely would have quit on it.  But, as with going against the grain with GONE GIRL—in that case a book in which the last half received the most reader vitriol—the narrative of ATLWCS started to pick up from page 151 forward.  (I’m kidding about the exact page, but it seemed around a fourth of the way through the narrative).  I found the last half of the book to be excellent, and often even scintillating.  So much so that I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, finishing in the wee hours of the morning

One of the primary criticisms of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE concerns the narrative containing too much detail.  First, anyone who dislikes florid prose should never buy a work of Literature that’s 530 pages.  Second, this is a book that chronicles the life of a girl who becomes blind at the age of six.  Following this she must live through the horrors of the bombing of her small town in France during WW2. 

I will not spoil the story, so this is all I’m going to say.  However, isn’t this enough?   The liner notes reveal the same information,  which tells even the most callow reader know that the story will contain enormous detail.  Mr. Doerr shows the world through this blind child’s mind.  Imagine THE CALL OF THE WILD if Jack London hadn’t described Buck’s “thoughts”?  It was the genius of the story.  And it’s the same with respect to Mr. Doerr’s skill as it applies to this blind child.

However, I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t admit that Mr. Doerr left himself open for criticism in a couple of areas.  I often scratched my head as to why he chose to write the book via constant flashbacks and and not in a liner fashion.  I found it maddening, especially toward the story’s finish.  I’d love to ask him why he did this.  My only answer, without his telling me, is that he didn’t find a perfectly linear narrative as gripping.  I’m not about to rip the pages from the book and collate the narrative in correct chronological order.  However, this wouldn’t be a bad exercise for someone interested in the challenge.

Mr. Doerr also made some of what seemed to be odd word choices early on in the story.  This might have cost him some points with readers.  He uses the couplet “anti-air” without including the noun this would modify.  Granted, he does say “anti-air battery” later on.  Still, the reader is constantly left to come up with “anti-aircraft gun” or some such completed expression.  Early in the story he also defines a character who “gapes” as the result of an action.  I thought he’d meant to write “gasps,” even though “gapes” can certainly serve as a verb.  However, he writes “gapes” in the same context later on in the narrative to make it clear that this was indeed his word of choice in his earlier run. 

Regardless, I can’t get “gapes,” as in “he gapes,” as good wording.  And for all his brilliance as a writer, Mr. Doerr constructs a number of sentences with dangling modifiers.  We all do, so it’s no great sin.  But when a writer requires nine years to bring at draft to completion, it’s hard to fathom that he would not have caught the participle glitches.  Another literary anomaly that anyone reading the book will notice involved his alternating between standard and metric units of measure.  How his editors missed this befuddles me.

In finishing up my feeble drivel on Mr. Doerr’s masterpiece, I believe that anyone who appreciates a layered story with multiple characters will find this book a wonderful template.  Right up there with USA, RAGTIME, and THE WINDS OF WAR (and its sequel).  But perhaps ATLWCS is superior to the others I listed since everything is presented in short bursts via the minichapter approach that James Patterson seems to be responsible for perfecting. 

In ATLWCS, while the chronology issues I discussed will drive some readers up the wall, the pitch won’t.  Mr. Doerr understands word tempo at a marvelous level.  The book is worth reading for this element alone.  However, in my opinion, the book is much more.  As with THE GOLDFINCH, which required about a decade of Ms. Tartt’s life to craft, Mr. Doerr’s narrative exemplifies the art of letters in addition to providing an enormously influential read.

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