Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate 2014)
Before the group: In short chapters that for the most part alternate between their two stories, this novel of the Second World War tells of a German orphan boy with a gift for radio technology (a geek before the word) and a blind French girl who flees Paris with her father when the Germans invade.
They finally meet in the aftermath of the Allied bombing of St Malo on the French coast in the last days of the war. The two young people’s war experiences are vividly realised. The account of the making of dedicated Hitler Youth is chilling. The story telling is masterful, and motifs of light and darkness, touch and sound, snails and gems are woven intricately into the novel’s fabric.
But it didn’t really touch the sides. At the centre of the plot is a brilliant diamond with a fire at its heart, sought after by the Nazis and guarded unawares by the blind girl. Some readers may respond to the talk of curses and other magic that surround this jewel so that it resonates with rich symbolism, but for me it’s just a maguffin, and the novel as a whole a beautifully crafted, enjoyable diversion set in a period that has been done, and done, and done. If it has fire at its heart, the fire remained invisible to me. Soon there may well be a Spielberg movie, as flawless as Bridge of Spies.
Actually I just told a lie. There is one paragraph that snagged me. Young Werner is deeply into his work with the German armed forces when he hears on his radio receiver some music that he and his sister Jutta used to listen to back on the orphanage:
Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand – what sounds like three hands, four – the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio on his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed.
That last phrase encapsulates brilliantly the long, corrosive years of Werner’s training to serve the Reich, and strikes a note of deep pathos. It made me glad I’d read the book.
At the meeting: Given that the book won a Pulitzer Prize and received extravagant critical praise, I was prepared to be a minority voice. But we had extraordinarily similar responses to it. Unusually though, we spent most of the evening – over a delicious tuna salad in a room with the walls folded back so we had full benefit of the warm autumn night – actually talking about the book. Spouses’ illnesses, the state of Sydney theatre, advice on how to approach local council all took a back seat.
One man had recently been to St Malo, and the book was a revelation – evidently the old town has been restored and all signs of the WW2 devastation erased. Another had researched the school young Werner was sent to, and verified that there were many like it. Yet another wondered if the Nazis did search Europe’s natural history museums as well as its art museums. So it did stir our minds. We all agreed that the short chapters made it very easy to read, that with one or two exceptions the characters were well drawn and engaging, that the plot moved along. We all agreed that it was beautifully written: one chap said he reread some chapters just for the pleasure of it, ignoring the onward pull of the narrative. No one was keen on the fiery jewel – only one chap thought we were supposed to take its magical powers seriously.
So we kept coming back to the question: why, if it’s so good in so many ways, does it leave us largely untouched? Perhaps the short alternating chapters worked against immersion in the story. Perhaps telling the story from children’s point of view limited the possibilities for adult engagement. Perhaps the book is overworked, leaving no Leonard Cohenish cracks to let the light come in. Perhaps the relentless action means there’s too little breathing space where a reader could find an emotional way into the story? Perhaps it’s that there is no thesis, no moment where the story comes together in a revelation of some sort, or if there is it’s too subtle for us. Perhaps we’ve all just read too many novels set in the Second World War. All those possibilities were canvassed, none were agreed on.