This book wasn’t something I thought I’d have the chance to read anytime soon; I have an embargo against new hardcovers (for monetary and spatial reasons), and almost everything that comes out, I can wait for in paperback. This book, though… well, two things happened:
1) I heard good things about it. Really, really good things. It won the Pulitzer, for starters, and it was well reviewed all over the place. People I know and respect were talking about it, and just about every book club has it on the rotation. (You’d think this would trigger my slightly hipster, majorly contrarian instincts, but nope!)
2) I asked when it was coming out in paperback, and the employee at BookStar frowned as she poked at her computer. Since hardcovers usually go to trades in nine months to a year, I figured I’d only have to wait a few months. Not so! The paperback isn’t coming out for a long time (at least another year), a deliberate marketing tactic on Scribner’s part, presumably to sell more hardcovers. (And Scribner, I get it, I really do, but arrrrrggghhhhh, you’re killing me here.)
So a while back, I just caved in and bought the damn thing, because my curiosity got the better of me, and because I was sick of my own hardcover embargo.
And, honestly, I’m very glad I did. I enjoyed this book, even though there were times when it was unrelentingly bleak and sad. This is an accomplished and tremendously character-driven piece of work that stands well against other war-set narratives; it never loses sight of its two protagonists and their journeys, and it privileges their experiences over anything else. If this had been any other type of story, I probably would have given up. It’s not that I want to deny that WWII happened, or that it was atrocious, but there’s a certain fatigue I get these days with these stories, where Nothing Good Will Ever Happen and There Is Absolute Evil Lurking ‘Round Every Corner. All the Light had none of this fatigue-producing inevitability. The inevitability of its plot stems from innocent (and not quite as innocent) people swept up in the tide of history and how this changes them, for good or for ill.
The two main characters are unlikely allies whose progress towards each other is steady but incredibly slow. Werner is a German orphan, gifted with engineering skills that the army immediately recruits him for. Marie Laur is a blind French girl, whose father is the locksmith for the Paris Natural History museum. The narrative jumps around between time periods a bit (this is a structural decision that will probably annoy readers who prefer a more straight forward approach to a story) but the inevitable occurs: Paris is attacked, and Marie Laur and her father flee to the French countryside, to stay with their uncle/great uncle Etienne, a shut-in suffering from severe mental illness. Werner is sent to the front lines and witnesses the horrors of war first hand, as a growing sense of unease over his actions (and the actions of the German nation as a whole) starts to hobble his progress forward. The two of them are meant to meet, somehow, impossibly, but the red string of fate is clear from page one.
Although this outcomes does seem fairly certain from page one, this book could have been a nonstop cavalcade of depressing, and it’s the rich character building that stops the narrative from that slide. Great-uncle Etienne turns out to be a man with a rich, kind soul who’s paralyzed by his fears of the outside and change, but longs to visit the world outside again. Together, he and Marie Laur imagine the outside world, talk about places they both desperately want to go, but can’t. Doerr describes him:
“Her uncle seems almost a child, monastic in the modesty of his needs and wholly independent of any sort of temporal obligations. And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind.” (157)
The greatest passages of this book come when Doerr describes empathy, but especially love, the love the characters have for one another, love in spite of all the odds, love that overcomes obstacles and challenges. If this were at all sentimental or foolish, the book would fall completely flat, but there’s sincerity in every word, and the tragedies and triumphs the characters experience are real, earned. While there are some flaws to this work (most notably, Werner’s sister is shut out from most of the narrative, but suddenly becomes a major character at the very end, and I wish we’d heard more of her story throughout), it’s a mostly wonderful book and entirely deserving of all the praise it’s garnered. I’m glad I splashed out and bought it in hardcover.