Rook – Reading list

reading can seriously damage your ignorance

A well-written artifact

During a regular talk I had with one of my mentor students we came to the topic of reading novels. In class I had said I really liked the Pulitzer Prize Winner 2015 All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. She said she actually stood in the American Book Store with the novel in her hands, but then she decided not to read it. The reason was that she found it difficult to read a story by an American author on a blind French girl in the Second World War. What would he know about that? Actually she had a point there.

I still find the novel a good read. Despite its many pages the story ripples onwards. Two children, a French girl and a German boy are followed during the atrocities of the Second World War. They are connected by the radio. The boy by being an expert on the technical side, the girl, being mainly in the French coast town of  Saint Malo, is connected to the machine through her uncle . The boy uses the radio for the benefit of the Germans, the girl for the resistance against them.

all_the_light_doerrThe novel has very short chapters, but it doesn’t come across as a staccato read.  The short chapters actually speed-up the reading as you keep constantly interested in what’s coming next without getting into a sudden bog of descriptive pages or tiresome monologues.

The novel also goes back and forth in time. This is both an advantage as a disadvantage. You get curious how people got into a future situation, but on the other hand you already know who will survive and who will be where. For this novel I think it leans more towards an improvement rather than a nuisance.

Yet, the novel also lacks a ‘suspension of disbelief’ at many points; the novel feels constructed, artificial. In his article ‘Darkness Visible’ William T. Vollmann states it best when saying:

Doerr has developed the situation into what could have been a profound parable: The blind transmitter, heroine, lawbreaker and potential martyr meets the ever-listening receiver, who has lost sight of his own principles.

‘Could have been’, for Doerr struggles with Nazism. Although all his characters on ‘the German side’ have some flaws, it is von Rumpel, the treasure hunter walking right from the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie that pollutes the novel with artificiality. He is the annoying, over the top, cliché bad guy Nazi and unnecessary for the plot.

And maybe that is the main problem with the novel. It has a certain Hollywood movie appeal to it. The symbols are all too obvious: the maquettes, the blindness, the radio, the Sea of Flames. They are like clear markers along the road of the plot.

RAF attack on Saint Malo 1942

RAF attack on Saint Malo 1942

I am sure Doerr has done lots of research in France before writing All the Light We Cannot See.  What can a German or French writer possibly know more about the Second World War than American Doerr? Well, for some part there isn’t any difference. If authors are not writing from personal experience, they have to get as near as personal to that by doing lots of research or have a vivid imagination. To a certain extent it doesn’t relly matter if you are an American or European novelist reading history books.

However, as a European reader I found myself sometimes watching an American movie about a French girl and a German boy. The characters are not cardboard cuts, but a lot of things felt cinegraphic rather than reality. Maybe it is what Carmen Callil says in “All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr review – a story of morality, science and Nazi occupation“:

Somehow it is strange to listen to the thoughts of Marie-Laure and Werner and the many other characters, both German and French, give forth such Yankee utterances as “Werner … you shouldn’t think big.” Sidewalks, apartment houses, the use of “sure” instead of “yes’ – all these cut across the historical background that Doerr has so meticulously researched.

The Americanisms sneak in without  actively noticing them most of the time. Yet lurking in the background you feel their presence.

With a character like von Rumpel, the many coincidences, the cinegraphic scenes and the obvious outcomes, All the Light We Cannot See seems like a novel to skip, or just wait until the movie. Yet many critics, despite their criticisms, agree that it is difficult to lay aside this novel. Written by an American novelist on European history which may come across as artificial, it is still a well-written artifact. Somehow, despite its flaws, All the Ligth We Cannot See remains a literary page-turner which cannot be neglected.


Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
Winner Pulitzer Prize 2015
530 pages

Interesting articles:

The Guardian – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr review – a story of morality, science and Nazi occupation

The New York Times – Darkness Visible: ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr


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This entry was posted on May 31, 2015 by in Literature, Reading List, Reviews and tagged , , .
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