Does this wartime Pulitzer prize winner deliver against the hype?

April 23, 2019

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars




This Pulitzer prize winning novel by Anthony Doerr has been hugely popular over the past few years and has been on my TBR for some time now. From what I knew about this book I had high hopes that this story of a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France during World War II would be something that would be deeply moving and highly enjoyable. 

There are some really great things about this book. Firstly our two main characters are both hugely likeable and tell us very different stories about life on different sides of the war. Firstly we follow Marie-Laure who has been blind from an early age, with her father the head of security at the Natural History Museum in Paris they find themselves fleeing Paris when it is occupied by the German's. On the other side, we follow Werner, a German orphan with an aptitude for radios who finds himself saught by Hitler Youth because of his skills and thrown into a world he finds difficult to reconcile himself with. Whilst the main story is told from their point of view Doerrr gives us some really wonderful and well fleshed out side characters such as Marie-Laure's Uncle Etienne and Werner's friend from school Frederik. They are characters you sympathise with and want to succeed. Being a World War II story the risk for everyone is always high and this means emotionally you are engaged and fearful for them throughout. Mainly we alternate back and forth between chapters from Marie-Laure's and Werner's perspectives throughout the timeline of the war. The chapters are very short, generally, only a few pages and this means you tend to fly through the narrative quite quickly and find yourself engaged very early on in the story. 

For me though, there was something just not quite there with this book. I think it was the fact that for 85% of this book our two main characters sit in complete isolation to one another. Their stories are independent and don't really intertwine. We are hopeful that they will intercept at some point but we are not sure about when they will and whether the meeting will be a positive one for all involved. I felt a little bit unmoved when they did meet, it was all over a little too quickly and didn't provide that gut-wrenching emotion I wanted to have after investing so much in the rest of the book. I wanted it to be epic, this is a Pulitzer prize winner after all, it must be amazing. Right? It just wasn't. It was only just okay. It was like waiting throughout the whole book for a pay off you just knew must be coming and then finding yourself shortchanged. 

This book had huge promise, it had a brilliant historical landscape with which to work and at times Doerr makes magnificent use of this to tell very moving stories about life during the war for both those who were occupied and the German boys who found themselves thrust into war. I just needed his characters to meet a little sooner and for their meeting to have the same emotional pull as the rest of the book. For that reason, I'm only giving this one 3 out of 5 stars. It was a good book but I thought I'd rave about it after and to be honest, it was only okay for me. 

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