I’m not very good at staying up-to-date with my reading. I read most books after the initial hype peaks, usually about a year after they’re released. This is how it was with Gone Girl, Americanah, and most recently, All the Light We Cannot See.
We read this for book club, which I always enjoy. Discussing books opens me up to other perspectives, encourages healthy debate, and offers a great excuse to split a couple bottles of wine with the group.
Since only three of us could make it to this meeting, we met at the Wellington, a small bar in Broad Ripple, and had a casual conversation that was driven by each of our questions and curiosities about the others’ points of view. Our topics ranged from the structural (format of the book, length of chapters) to the historical (World War II from the perspective of a German boy and a blind French girl, how to acknowledge widespread evil without compromising the narrative voice) to the emotional (initial reactions, feelings about different characters).
We all liked the format of the book. The reader is guided between the views of Werner and Marie-Laure, and back and forth in time, which is initially a little disconcerting, but makes sense as the story develops. Though it is long and densely worded at times, the novel is broken up into very short segments — sometimes three or four pages long.
In an interview, Doerr explains that this was done as a kind of courtesy to the reader:
My prose can be dense. I love to pile on detail. I love to describe. I’m much more reluctant to give the reader entrance into a character’s feeling than describe what’s around him or her and have the reader intuit the internal life of a character. I know that’s demanding, so this was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, “I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.”
One element of the novel that instigated healthy debate was the presence of a mystical diamond, rumored to be curse, within the story. Two of us enjoyed it as both a plot device and source of intrigue, while another didn’t buy it: it was too cliche, too supernatural and surreal for a historical novel.
Interestingly, Doerr explains in the interview that this is something he wanted to prevent:
I worried about it being a little too gimmicky. I was trying to write a human story about the war, and I worried that it would come across as too crass of a vehicle to move the novel forward. Eventually, I just bought into it as hard as I could because this was one way to continue narrative momentum, and to give her father a reason to disappear.
Without giving too much away, I believe Doerr constructed this element of the story beautifully, adding just enough intrigue to provide a tinge of mystery without eroding the historical foundation of the novel.
All the Light We Cannot See won this year’s Pulitzer Prize. If my (very high) recommendation of this nuanced, beautifully written story doesn’t convince you to read this book, allow yourself to be persuaded by its extensive popularity and critical acclaim.