War stories

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a Pulitzer prize winner and has been on the best selling list in Australia for some time.

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Yet I have put off reviewing it, just as I put off reading it. I bought it at the airport on my way to Perth at Christmas time, and read some of it on the plane. As soon as I found other books to read, I put it aside, and kept doing this until I had nothing left to read, then I finished it. I’m not sure why I was and am so lukewarm. This book has been critically acclaimed, and many reviewers on Goodreads give it 5 stars. I would give it 3 and a half. 3 for moral worthiness and invention and metaphorical intensity, and half for characterisation and narrative construction. It is an unusual war story, taking two children from opposite sides of the war, Nazi Germany and occupied France, and winding their semi-captive lives on separate spools until finally they weave together briefly, only to separate again. Perhaps this is part of my resistance. I feel their lives have been engineered by the author from the start, as if he’d said ‘how can I show how it was to be a child with few choices on each side of the war, and how, when they are brought together, they can both transcend the war and yet remain captured by it?’

This conscious construction is evident for me in the structuring of the story, which is told in brief, alternating episodes, counterpointed with episodes in another voice, that of an ageing, terminally ill Nazi officer hunting for a priceless treasure that the French girl is unknowingly keeper of. I found the toing and froing of the narrative very distracting, especially as the time frame keeps changing between remote and recent past and present, in no particular order (that I could see). Dates are put at the front of each section, but I had to keep referring back to them to keep track.

As for the characters, each of them is unusual, verging on deformed or damaged, in different ways. Marie-Laure, the French girl, is blind from the age of six, and so perforce lives in a world she cannot see yet imagines vividly through other senses. This become particularly intense in the climactic scenes when she is being hunted by the Nazi officer. He is bizarre in his insane obsession with the treasure and disregard of the bigger picture of which he is part. Werner, the German boy, is gifted, a self-taught genius in electronics, which wins him survival in a Hitler Youth school and a job hunting Resistance fighters. An orphan, his emotions are constricted, his main object of affection (in absentia for most of the story) being his sister, until he meets Marie-Laure, only to have to separate from her to save her life. Each character, in their own way, could unfold as a unique  and tragic /grotesque study in loss, obsession and survival. Intersecting their lives should intensify their strange beauty/grotesquerie. Clearly, many readers feel it does. It didn’t work for me. Marie-Laure seems more real than the others, but she is so rarefied and un-childlike, she remains an idea for me.

This book reminded me of The Book Thief. I was a dissenter from the admiration it received too. I find them both over-constructed, and for different reasons, disengaging.

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