Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I have read Doerr’s Memory Wall as part of my MFA readings and found it fit my emerging concept of 21st century magical realism, which I believe differs from traditional magical realism. All The Light We Cannot See has a splash of this also. I won’t bother discussing the plot, since that is fairly well covered by the generalized editorial reviews and back cover blurb.

What Doerr does well is get us attached to two different characters and paint pictures with rather sparse details–by focusing on the right things, or enough for the reader to feel they have a feel for where we are, even though it is not filled out as much as we feel it is. A great skill that I wish I had.

One technique that is definitely literary and some may not enjoy is the bouncing around in time. He does label the chapters by date, so you are not completely lost, but the non-linear timeline feels a bit contrived. What does the reader REALLY gain by this technique? It is not about plot, but setting emotions. It works, sort of. Then the “chapters” within chapters technique. He has thirteen “parts” with 178 chapters. Some of these “chapters” are less than a page. I recall one of the instructors in my MFA program criticizing my own manuscript (not in a mean, or petty, way) when reading just one chapter and saying “this really isn’t a chapter is it?” She felt it was too short. Of course she was wrong. Chapters are whatever the author wants them to be. They are literary “breaks” and that is what Doerr is doing here. Indeed, what he does with some of the time shifts is provide a series of prologues, after the novel has already started. He helps the reader think of it as a prologue by writing these in the present tense. You don’t instantly notice the shift, which is a sign of good writing.

While the novel takes place in WWII, it is not fundamentally a WWII novel. It is however how that period of time shaped two people, with the backdrop of other characters we feel how it shaped all of France and Germany.

The splash of magical realism is the massive diamond that legends and stories from hundreds of years ago have attributed magical powers. One starts out thinking that this is like any grand item from antiquity, with legends swirling around it, but at the end there is a feeling of “hmm.” It is subdued and subtle and does not meet the old definition of magical realism, where any magic simply happens, is accepted, and not thought of as special. Yet, it meshes with my own thoughts of modern magical realism, such as Murakami’s writing. Perhaps someday I’ll update my old thesis on this and post it.

The end is a bit “Hollywood.” Not happy ending, but the need to wrap up things. But, if one considers that much of the novel has “prologues” thrown in multiple times, it may be a fitting bookend to the stories to have a wrap-up. Still, it felt a bit off and did not make me feel more satisfied. He could have easily ended with Part Eleven instead of Part Thirteen.

Still, I remain impressed with Doerr’s subdued writing, where the plot is important, but the characters are the most important and the window to their life is interesting. There is no huge arc on the characters, but their is an arc and we care about them and in particular we care about how they were shaped and why. I give this four out of five stars as I found it vaguely unsatisfying at the end and the whiplash on jumping times not adding enough value for me, but these are personal gripes and many will not be bothered.

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