Besides the fact that, in my acknowledgedly biased view, babies make any picture more enticing, I wanted dear Willoughby to feature next to this beautiful book because he’s been part of the journey.
I started All The Light We Cannot See on the 2nd of February, the day I went into hospital to have Willoughby: my third child, a boy after two girls. And it’s because of him (and he’s forgiven, of course), that it’s taken me over three months to finish it.
I read the final pages this morning, whilst nursing, and dropped a tear or two onto my little one’s baby grow.
As a writer, I read a lot: I see it as part of the job just like a tennis player needs to hit the gym to work on certain muscles. And I’ve read many, many wonderful books. But this one’s special.
It was recommended to me by a friend who had just finished reading my debut, What Milo Saw. He said that he’d read another book recently about an extraordinary child with a visual impairment, like my protagonist, Milo. Of course, now, I blush at the comparison between my little book and this Pulitzer prize winning, sweeping epic. But still, it was nice that he made the connection and so I bought the book.
When I finish this, I’m going to write him a thank you note. Every book changes us: as artists but also as human beings. This story, which narrates the coming together of two children and then young people during the second world war, taught me so much about good writing and about the nuances of how people behave and what they do at times of war. I also read this as research for a historical novel I’m going to write about my grandparents who were part of the German resistance. It’s a daunting task, especially after reading an extraordinary book like this, but I’m grateful to be standing on this particular giant’s shoulders: he’s given me a pretty amazing view.
One of the things I admired most about this novel was the beautiful way he wove in symbols and motifs which formed part of the characters lives: the love of radio (a love I share); the hunt for a diamond; the creation of intricate puzzles and models and locks; the technicalities of finding one’s way through the world when one of sense’s have been removed; the way that a book can accompany us, as closely as a dear friend, through a time of tragedy.
I also loved the way in which Anthony Doerr developed the complex relationships between his characters: brother and sister; daughter and father; niece and great uncle; and the friendships – the hauntingly painful one between two young boys in a military school in Germany and the friendship between a small blind girl and the women in her community as they work together to form a resistance.
Unusually, for a long, historical book full of beautiful language and rich in symbolism, this was a page turner too. It was helped by the short chapters but it was more than this too. Our anticipation of the coming together of the boy and girl at the heart of the story; the hunt for a diamond; the disappearance of a father – and the constant fear that the characters grow to love as the story unfolds, might not make it.
I’ll press this book into as many hands as I can and it has come to sit at the top of my very favourite novels, alongside books I adore like The English Patient, The Poisonwood Bible, and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages, which captures perfectly not only the beauty of Doerr’s prose but the magical way he inhabits a character who, paradoxically, sees more clearly for being blind:
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep in to the earth’s crust, on which Saint Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling ties; she hears crows drink from stone troughs and dolphin rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leaves below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.Rather than reading it o you, maybe you could read it to me?With her free hand, she opens the novel in her lap. Finds the lines with her fingers. Brings the microphone to her lips.