All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I don’t know how this happened and I’m almost ashamed to admit it: but it’s been so long since I last read a Margaret Atwood book, I’d forgotten what a sensational writer she is. I know, hard to consider with the resurgence in popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale due to the superb mini-series. But I had. I’d forgotten her capacity to drag you by the scruff of the neck into a story and hold you there well beyond the last page.

So it is with the first in her MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake. Once again, Atwood immerses the reader in a dystopian narrative. This time, the end of the world as we know it is not only nigh, it’s happened. All that remains of civilisation, or so it appears, is a lumbering, dirty man calling himself “Snowman” who, apart from a tattered old sheet wound around his body, carries little but heavy memories. He also bears responsibility for the only other survivors (apart from flora and fauna): the strange, perfect and gentle “Crakers”, the green-eyed denizens seemingly at home in this apocalyptic nightmare.

It’s through Snowman’s memories, his journey through the devastated landscape, and his interactions with the naïve Crakers, that we learn what has happened to the planet and why.

The names in the title feature strongly in The Snowman’s recollections, as does genetic engineering, social modification and rules, and the extant gap between those who have and those who don’t – a gap that in this tale has become a dark abyss into which the world tumbles.

Magnificent in scope, powerful and all-too real, I found his hard to put down, even though I wanted to escape the nightmare vision Atwood has created. Not enough I won’t be picking up the next two books though.

A must-read for fans of dystopian fiction, who enjoy Atwood’s oeuvre and want to remind themselves what a superb teller of tales she is, or just love a damn fine, thought-provoking and challenging read.


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