War story

9 August 2015

When I saw that Anthony Doerr had published All The Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate, 2014) my first thought was that I’d give it a miss, despite the stunning title. Did I need to read another novel about the Second World War? But this is a war story you may not want to miss.

Set in France (first in Paris and then in Saint-Malo) and Germany (Solverein), the two main characters are a blind French girl, whose favourite author is Jules Verne, and a German orphan boy with an enquiring mind and an affinity for technology, particularly radio. In a digitally connected age, one forgets how vital radio was in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, Doerr quotes Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or use it in the ways we have without the radio”.

The story switches from 7 – 12 August 1944, when the Allies were advancing on German-held areas of France (including Saint-Malo), to 1934, then 1940 and back again. The reader finally has the background stories of the main characters and is then swept inexorably into the final dramatic scenes in which all the various strands come together. It is skillfully done and allows the writer to slow down the tempo or heighten it, depending on where he is in the tale. He also takes the story forward to 1945 and the final days of the war, then to 1974 and finally to 2014.

It is a well-conceived story and the reader is sufficiently invested in the characters to long for a happy outcome. But the real strength for me were the powerful reminders of the grimness of war, the terrible effect it has on everybody, winners and losers alike, whether they are involved in the actual fighting or passive onlookers. Doerr also deals very skillfully with those aspects of the war that we all know about and dread reading about in graphic detail – the concentration camps, the Nazi extermination programmes, the violence of the Red Army’s advance into Berlin, especially for the women.

It is such an intricate story with so many interweaving strands that it is not surprising it took Doerr ten years to construct. I am glad though that he persisted and that I didn’t follow my initial instinct to leave it unread. All The Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.

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