It’s been a while since I read a book where I was not plummeting towards an ending. I tend to favour short intense books that swallow me whole and spit me out before I can blink. I like reading like a swimmer hurtling to the surface for air. I have a fondness for brevity, minimalism, lightness. Any draft that comes my way goes back bleeding red.
But this book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, was a refreshing change of pace. It slows you down; it stops you on a busy street corner and says “Look!” It tells you the names of the birds in the air, which trees are flowering this season, it tells you exactly how breakfast tasted. It reminds you that you are standing in the locus of an electromagnetic spectrum and in this very moment, there are millions of messages hurtling past you—I love you, and I miss you, and don’t forget the eggs. There are so many things that are fantastic about this book and I don’t know where quite to start—but perhaps here—it reintroduces you to that feeling of wonder—when you can look at a bird spiraling high above and think, isn’t this just fantastic.
I returned to this book again and again, not so that I can find out what happened next, but so that I can slowly disappear into its world, curling into a familiar blanket. A book about mist and food and birds whose names I no longer remember. It’s the rumble of bombs in the distance and the hum of a radio nearby. There’s a certain point that you hit in this book—for me it was about a third into it—when you realise you are not going to get the gratification you crave. There is no twist, no startling social critique, no ‘aha!’ moment. It is a book that builds itself through patterns, slowly looping over each other, strangely reminding me of growth rings in a tree. And yet, in many ways, the plot sounds like something found in a pulp magazine from the 1950s—World War II! A missing diamond! A French girl! A German boy! Nazis! A curse! It is only when you are midway through the book do you realise that your anticipation is ill-founded. The ending, you realise, is a fixed point. The book is in no hurry to get to it. Everything is going to turn out exactly as it should, the book reassures you, and there is no cause to worry. The glory, you realise, is here, in the middle. So you turn the pages more slowly, stopping to listen:
“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
In many ways Anthony Doerr’s book reads like a perfectly executed dance, and like most perfectly rehearsed dances, for the viewer it looks effortless. It is equal parts plot and style, hope and loss, history and magic. It is a perfectly structured book with short chapters (about a page each) flipping between different points of view, different timelines. It give you fleeting glimpses of what is to come, but just enough to whet your curiosity before swinging back to childhood memories of seashells and open windows. The plot lurks in the background, gathering strength like looming storm clouds, charging the book with a certain electricity, but this is a story as much about childhood and memory, about friendships and family, about doing the right thing.
But perhaps, above all, it is a story about hope and possibility. All you could be. I admit—there were certain points in the ending which had me giggling—surely you’re pushing this romance angle too much Mr. Doerr? —and that too only at the very end—but at no point did the elasticity of fiction break. Never did I stop reading saying, “This is too much! This could not have happened! You are a fool Mr. Doerr, for being so optimistic!” But perhaps this is because the book never pretended to be part of the “real” world. It doesn’t quite fit into our world of 24×7 news telecasts and global food chains and smash cuts, and it doesn’t even try. There is no cynicism and irony, and if there is any disillusionment, it only leads to one making a better choice. It is a world very similar to our own, but not quite. Slower, and more beautiful. The people are well-intentioned, even if they do not make the best choices. I cannot resent that Doerr takes a time of chaos and pain and turns into something about beauty and hope; he never pretends to look deep within the human soul, or reveal some insight into society’s ugly workings. The book is simply what it is—a thing of beauty and suspense.