Wednesday, 1 July 2015

VSH Book Club #3 - All The Light We Cannot See Review

Apologies for the lack of book club posts last month, I blame my return to work, plus the fact that this was a bit of an epic read! Hopefully we will now be back on track with a book a month, so make sure you come back tomorrow for the reveal of July’s choice.

So… All The Light We Cannot See. I really, really liked this book. It is definitely my favourite of the books I have read so far this year and I would recommend it to anyone who likes to get stuck into an intriguing story with a focus on character development. History buffs or just those with an interest in the Second World War are unlikely to be disappointed.

The book has two main characters, Marie-Laure, who at the outset is a 12 year old blind girl living in Paris with her father, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan of a similar age whose best friends are his younger sister Jutta and an old electrical radio which he manages to salvage. The short, sharp chapters of the book mostly alternate between Marie-Laure and Werner’s narration, and it is their parallel experiences of wartime, and eventual convergence, which make the story so effective. Whilst the two are only in each other’s company for the shortest of times, it was for me one of the stand-out sections of the book, with Doerr managing to avoid an overdose of sentimentality.

Marie-Laure was my favourite of the two protagonists and in particular I embraced her relationships with her father, then later her uncle, as authentic and necessary. Guided around Paris and then Saint-Malo (the coastal town of Northern France where she and her Father flee to) by hand carved model cities, Marie-Laure develops into a young adult who takes on the task of smuggling illegal broadcasting messages to her uncle with minimal fuss or fear, which seems natural given the way in which her father raised her. The absence of her Father for at least half of the book, and the lack of resolve on his disappearance, is hauntingly sad but entirely ordinary given the story’s context. Inhabited by the power of books, Marie-Laure’s coming of age culminates in a 5 day stake out in a secret attic, during which time she reaches out and finds, albeit unknown to her, the ears of Werner, via her uncle’s rogue broadcasting station.

Werner stumbles upon the voice of Marie-Laure narrating one of her favourite stories, followed by a cry for help of “he’s going to kill me”, whilst he is trapped in post-bombing hotel ruins. Werner ends up there after being plucked from obscurity at the orphanage and saved from a life of mining thanks to his knack for audio engineering. His natural talent sees him excel at a Hitler Youth School under the protection of a Science Professor and older student Volkheimer, whose friendship with Werner is slow burning and subtle. Unsurprisingly, the Academy is a brutal breeding ground for oppression and indoctrination. Sent out to the field at the early age of 15, Werner manages to rejoin Volkheimer and his team as they travel east, trailing and uncovering illegal broadcasters, ultimately leading him to Marie-Laure and a moral decision he must make.

The story is captivating, and I can see why there have been comparisons with ‘The Book Thief’. I have probably not read a book as atmospheric and one which so effectively conveys the reality of wartime Europe since Markus Zusak’s offering, although the latter remains far superior for me. The jumping from one time frame to another worked well I found, as it kept up levels of intrigue as to how the main two characters would fare in the last few months of
the war. The empathy felt for the two young adults was the strongest point of the book, together with the beautiful language used to paint a vivid picture of their immediate surroundings. Amongst the best bits of writing were the chapters in which Marie-Laure, deprived of both her site and her closest companion, sets foot onto the beach for the first time, as the healing powers of the sea and accompanying wildlife almost leap up out of the page.

The downsides of the book and few and far between. I found it a little too drawn out around the middle section, when Werner’s time at the school is depicted in great detail. Here there were also a number of characters which did not, in my opinion, add anything substantial to the book, and bordered on clich├ęd. For example I would have happily given up time reading about the Academy’s almost cartoon like Commander, and spent it instead following the plight of Marie-Laure’s imprisoned Father. I also think that more narration from Werner’s sister would have made the chapters she does offer towards the end more effective. She is an intriguing young girl but unfortunately her descent into adolescent is only briefly explored. The book also tracks the plight of a supposedly cursed precious stone, and in particular the quest to discover it by a terminally ill captain of the Reich. I found his chapters the least enjoyable, and although his involvement is key to the much anticipated encounter of Werner and Marie-Laure, I thought he was given too much page space.

Despite those small flaws All The Light We Cannot See has made its way into my top 50 books (if such a list existed!) and the beautiful imagery of conflicting childhoods, and the difficult decisions made in the years that follow will stick with me for a while. I do wish that I had read this in fewer sittings, as I feel the time I took to keep dipping in and out probably diminished the overall effect of the read. If you haven’t read it yet then definitely do so, but try to start it when you have a decent amount of time to dedicate.

Overall, a beautifully written book with a clever way of uniquely telling what is essentially a much told story.

What did you think folks? Would you recommend to a friend? 

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