All the Light We Cannot See

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: There’s not much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and masterful in its language, imagery, and format. It deserves all the awards it has won.

First I have to applaud Doerr for the amount of research he did to craft this novel. There were some sentences where I had to stop and wonder at the research he must have conducted to make that single sentence, and I know there were other pieces of research so subtly threaded into the text that I didn’t even notice.

Also, this is one of the first books I’ve read where the author successfully jumps between characters, times, and even letters and chapters. It’s organized in two different time frames throughout most of the book and mainly follows Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in Paris with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History as a locksmith, and Werner, a young German orphan with snowy blonde hair and an affinity for electronics and mathematics that leads the Nazis to notice him. Another character, von Rumpel, is an old sergeant major for the Nazis whose job requires him to evaluate and locate treasures for the Third Reich. His search for the Sea of Flames, a gem said to have magical powers to prevent death, leads him to the French town of Saint-Malo, where Werner and Marie-Laure also end up. The way paths cross in this novel–the overlapping of radios, gems, light, darkness, birds, etc.–is gorgeous. I’m still trying to untangle the complicated webs of plot and character that appear here, and I think I will always be trying to untangle them. This is a book that is impressed on my memory.

Consider, for example, this description of characters who never directly come into play:

“[Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel] has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.” (141)

A later chapter titled “The Simultaneity of Instants” is perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the novel. It jumps from character to character but within the same “instant.” The single paragraph, stream-of-consciousness format of this instant is also brilliant in building suspense.

Letters between Werner and his sister, Jutta, are scattered throughout the book as well. The letters are not important in and of themselves, but the heavy censorship of the letters are interesting and heartbreaking to see.

The jumping between time frames is complicated in that it does reveal certain truths to the audience that the characters themselves are unaware of. We know much early than Marie-Laure, for example, what her father means when he instructs her to look in the house, and I can see how other readers might be bored with this then. Yet the whole truth is never revealed to us. We don’t know what will happen to any of the characters we have come to love until the end of the novel. This is what drove me to continue reading.

Moreover, I think it’s important for this novel to have a non-chronological format. Not only does it build suspense far better than a chronological format and make the novel more unique, but, as historical fiction, it presents a non-linear view of history, which is important. Not everything should be read as a cause-and-effect event. By jumbling the timeline of his plot, Doerr makes history less linear and more circular–or perhaps the more correct term would be “squiggly.” Yes, Doerr’s book is squiggly.

It’s also tragic. Consider this a formal heads up to have tissues ready (if the WWII setting wasn’t enough of an indication). In spite of the tragedy, it ends well–Doerr spends just the right amount of time tying up loose ends.

Recommendation: This strikes me as something fans of The Book Thief would love. I think it’s a good read for anyone with the patience and appreciation for Doerr’s level of detail and an interest in WWII. There is a scene later in the book that may trigger some who have been abused, though Doerr handles the content well.

#FlashbackFriday: The Library Window

Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: This Friday I’m flashing back to 1896.

I normally don’t review books I read for my literature courses because they’ve already been widely reviewed. Why do you need me to tell you to read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? You’re probably going to read it at some point anyway. (If you haven’t yet, you really should; it’s a good one.)

The difference with The Library Window is that it’s not well known. Though she was a favorite of Queen Victoria and wrote over 120 books, she’s not studied much today. This post is my PSA that Oliphant is an author worth studying. She certainly deserves more than nine reviews on Goodreads.

The Library Window is a Gothic novella (or, if you want to be cute, “novelette”) around 50 pages long. It tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who begins to notice a peculiar library window across from her aunt’s home. While her aunt’s friends speculate that the window is a fake, the narrator grows more certain that it is, in fact, real. Over time, she begins to see the room behind the window and, eventually, a man living in it. She discounts the older ladies’ claims as a result of their poor eyesight, but the window and the man beyond it still seem not quite right. The narrator becomes obsessed with the man, perhaps to the point of madness.

This was Oliphant’s last book; she died a year later, having outlived her husband, brothers, and all her children. This fact makes the novella even more haunting.

It’s the sort of haunting I can tolerate though. As someone who’s successfully avoided horror movies, I’m not one to read scary books, and I don’t think this books is scary. It’s suspenseful and it sticks with you, but it’s not scary.

It’s hard to talk about this book the way I normally would. There’s no epic romance, but the relationship between the narrator and the man in the window she only sees from across the street is an interesting one. The cast is almost entirely female, but the main character is a girl who enjoys reading and daydreaming; she is a relatable character at first and a strange character later.

The plot is not remarkable in any way, nor is it unremarkable. It is what you’d expect from gothic literature, but that doesn’t detract from my experience of the book. It’s a page-turner because Oliphant writes it in an interesting way. She leads the reader to ask plenty of questions and never answers one without bringing up another. That said, she never answers all the questions, surrendering her story to the reader’s interpretation.

That’s what I love most about this story: its openness to interpretation. The meaning behind the elusive library window, the narrator’s growing interest in it, and her strange relationship with her aunt and her aunt’s friends opens the novel to multiple readings. Even more interestingly, since the book is not widely reviewed, I don’t think anyone has yet found a perfect answer to the meaning of the novella–and perhaps they never will. The questions that remain after the books’ conclusion add to the sense of mystery.

The Library Window is a brilliantly written novella that doesn’t have the readership it deserves.

Recommendation: Literature majors, especially those who appreciate Victorian and Gothic literature, will appreciate this book.

Since it’s such a quick read, I’d say those who enjoy suspense stories and don’t mind them being historical would also appreciate this novella. If you like Poe, this is perfect for you. It’s the sort of book that should be read around Halloween, anyhow. And it’s appropriate for the kiddos. It teaches them to stay away from strange men in the window and diamond rings. I might be stretching it a little, but you get the gist.

If you’re at all interested, please please please read this book.