Occasionally a novel comes along requiring you to update your favourite novel lists. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Jenny Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is the sort of book that were it not so good, it would result in me abandoning plans to ever write again. If I were Elton John, I’d be buying it bulk and shoving into the hands of the moronic commuters lacking a book. Anthony Doerr’s writes so well that it’s easy to imagine he even enjoys writing cheques. On the back of this, there’s certainly plenty of those on their way.
God knows how long it took him to write. The research alone must have taken years. His portrait of Normandy’s Saint Malo exists in your very hands. It’s perfect, as are the warm, flawed and somehow innocent characters; all at mercy to the tumultuous tides of German occupied Europe between 1941 and the Normandy landings of 1944.
It’s always promising when you find yourself reading a novel with the TV muted, not to mention that the first sitting is spent reading five-star review quotes of the first 6 pages. It also has a great jacket. Not judging a book by its cover is obviously advice book designers never listen to, nor indeed does human nature, which spends so much time wandering around judging books, people and frankly anything they see by the cover, that it’ a miracle they don’t bump into things more often.
The novel throws into question the maxim, ‘the only good German is a dead one’, as the meek orphan Werner Pfennig is conscripted into the Hitler Youth, and spends the rest of the war winning the lottery due to his skills in wireless technology. Of course, this is 1941, so the prize is travelling around occupied terroritories locating resistance wireless signals before watching his comrades slaughter the broadcasters. These flashes of purpose are punctuated by sleeping on hard benches of an Opel 1 tonne Blitz truck whilst wrestling with diarorrhea. It’s lighter than that might imply!
Quoting all the good lines in the book would require transcribing the entire thing, so I’ll restrain myself to a single line, which alone must have taken a day to perfect:
‘But to raise one’s hopes is to risk their falling further.’
Yet, it’s what this novel does. It finds elegance and compassion in individuals battling those colossal capacities of the world to be brutal and cold. And once again I’m left with the sense that despite anarchist groups like No Borders Network, it’s actually easier to agree with Pascal’s maxim that ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Whatever you agree with, Doerr has spent his time in a room productively. With its bite size chapters that somehow retain momentum and emersion, he’s set the bar high for the Novel. Its a tremendous achievement and I look forward to saying the film’s not as good as the book in a few years time.