Thursday, March 17, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

You'd be surprised, probably, to find out how many bestselling books I never got around to reading when I was a bookseller. The reason was simple: When a book began to light up bestseller lists, as well as the enthusiasm of customers who took it upon themselves to promote it to their friends,  it meant that a book I had not yet taken the opportunity to read didn't really need my help to find its way home with someone. My limited reading time needed to be spent finding the next book they should adopt.  

I didn't keep a list of the great books I missed out on over the years because of this. It's just as well. You'd think ill of me if you knew what some of them were. 

The worst thing about this, of course, is that I rarely ever went back and picked up whatever blockbuster beloved book it might have been, because staying current was just part of the job description. To the list of reasons that being a used-to-be-bookseller isn't completely horrible, then, add this: I can take yet another piece of my own book advice:  Any book you haven't yet read is a new book. Never apologize for being late to the party. 

Of course, there are risks associated with being one of the last people to read a book that everybody has read and most of them have loved. Chief among them is that expectations are heightened, and that can lead to disappointment. 

Such was not the case with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. 

If you somehow have managed to avoid knowing anything about this book, it's set during WWII, just before and during the Nazi invasion of France. Marie-Laure, a young teen who has been blind most of her life, and her father flee Paris and take refuge with her eccentric great-uncle. Marie-Laure's story is entertwined with that of Werner Pfennig, a young man who was brought up in an orphanage in Germany. 

Doerr helps us navigate Marie-Laure's world of darkness along with her, effectively allowing the reader to try on her disability. But the most extraordinary thing Doerr does in his novel is, in much the same way, drawing us into empathetic understanding of Werner, even as he is drawn more deeply into the Nazi machine. It is a most eloquent reminder that the the highest cost of any war is the cost to the souls of those who, having no truck with the ideology of their leaders, are compelled to serve in support of choices they did not make.

All the Light We Cannot See is an utterly complete and satisfying story, one that I suspect will find its way into my thoughts for years to come. 


Published in hardcover by Scribner, May 2014

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