I got a book light in my stocking. How appropriate for the late night staying up to read “just one more chapter” of All the Light We Cannot See. The trouble, of course, is that the chapters in this novel are never more than five page long – most two or three – and so resolving to do “just one more chapter” is a promise to still be reading an hour later. Thankfully I’m on holiday and sleeping in is requisite. If you’re not on holiday you might prepare to be stern with yourself, or accept being a bit groggy eyed as this isn’t a story easily put down.
Appropriate, too for the images in the novel. It’s a story with parallel narratives – that of Marie-Laure, the blind Parisian girl who is a prodigious reader and world-creator, and that of Werner, the starkly Aryan orphan with a prodigious talent for electronics, radio in particular. As their two tales unfold against the backdrop of France under Nazis occupation, we get intricately woven and masterfully described scenes and plot moments with richly imagined conflicts and consequences. Symbolism abounds: diamonds, curses, radios and silence, snow-white hair and 20 000 leagues under the sea: it’s all meant to mean something and to mean so much.
It’s tempting to give this an unqualified endorsement, and I do strongly suspect that if you pick it up, you’ll absolutely enjoy the read (I certainly did). I have to admit a certain reluctance, however, as I found two problems: 1. The characters, while compelling for what they do and for what happens to them, are not, on their own, fully imagined or realized. They certainly experience conflict and are called upon to make heroic or challenging choices, they have complex interactions with other characters, but their interior lives remain opaque and stunted. 2. The ending is entirely too tidy for my taste. Resolved. And the leadup – the climaxes – read with the certainty of resolution. In part the flashback structure – we begin in 1944 and move back and forth in time – promises this kind of conclusion, but I suppose there’s also the structural point that we couldn’t create such intricately woven parallel narratives without having them meet (or that certain assurance that we could not put characters with such extraordinary and exceptional lives in such danger and not have some resolution).
My complaints are more a way of saying while this is a book you’ll enjoy reading (much as anyone can enjoy reading WWII fiction, I suppose) it isn’t without problems. Look past these quibbles and you’ll find yourself reading by whatever light you’ve got – probably something backlit and electronic. Which will, I’m sure you know, ruin your eyes and keep you up all night.