by Caryl Barnes
In May the Writers as Readers group discussed Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is a work of literary fiction 530 pages long and comprised of 167 short chapters. While most of us liked the book and all of us found much to admire, we agreed, as we do about most books we read for group, that it could have been shorter. We disagreed, however, about what could have been cut without damaging the complex and wonderful plot.
The book tells the painful stories of a competent blind French girl and a brilliant German boy before, during, and after World War II. They are complex and deep characters, and a lot of our conversation was about their natures, experiences, and fates. There is a third main character about whom reviewers and our group disagree. He’s a bad man, a stereotypical Nazi, who pursues a valuable diamond surrounded in myth. Some think this plot element detracts from the profound and fascinating stories of Marie Lore and Werner; others see it as integral to the themes of the book.
In this book and his others Doerr is fascinated by science and technology. The meaning of Werner’s brutal life lies in the miracle of radio. For Marie Lore natural science, especially mollusks, gives purpose. Their circumstances during the war could scarcely be more dreadful, and there is much light they cannot see, Marie Lore literally and Werner spiritually. Their passions, fortunately, bring them at least some light they can see.
Since we in the group aim to read as writers, we talk about writerly matters. In this book we noticed how Doerr advanced the plot through objects which gathered meaning as they recurred in different circumstances. These included the controversial diamond, a book in Braille, Werner’s notebook, leaflets dropped from war planes, keys, and miniature wood buildings.
Some of us pointed out that the entire book was written in the present tense. Others, including this reviewer, were so caught up in the story that they didn’t notice!
Several of us Writers as Readers recently participated in a writers’ workshop given by University of Wisconsin professor Ron Kuka. Kuka said to direct the eye of the reader from line to line, paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter. We agreed that All the Light We Cannot See was a fabulous example of visual detail.
Did the book deserve the Pulitzer? Yes for some in our group; no for others. And you?