All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I'm going to flip the order of this review around (no spoilers) and simply say this: The end of this book is beautiful. The characters and the plot come together in a way that is magical, both within the story proper and from the perspective of the reader. The idea of magic is subtly woven into a Nazi Germany/occupied France plot so that as we read this meeting of all the forces at the end, we readers feel the magic in what the characters experience in sharing a jar of peaches (I hope that’s not a spoiler—I don’t think it is). And our slow denoument - evidence of the ways war destroys everyone in its path - is very well done.
This book was certainly the kind of literary fiction worth the read. It left me with plenty to think about. Aside from the plot, the book had a lot to say about the role of music, books and art in human life, an observations that come into stark relief in the context of war.
Despite this praise, I was surprised to see that the book won the Pulitzer Prize. In this post, I want to take a look at the beginning of the book, which I would put forth as the book’s weakness.
But before I do this, I want to present what I feel is a fundamental difference between genre fiction and literary fiction: Genre fiction comes to the reader, making explicit ideas, thoughts and motivations for the reader. At its best, genre fiction is fun, easily accessible entertainment, but at its worst, these books are obvious, predictable and slightly juvenile. Literary fiction takes the opposite approach; the reader has to do the work of coming to the book. And there are rewards for making the journey—deep insights, on many levels, as we are transported into the lives of others. But literary fiction has pitfalls, too. The passages can get stuck in an author’s self-indulgent, unedited digressions, and, worse, it can be slow and boring.
As you can guess from the above description, genre fiction can learn a lot about, for example, the subtleties of characterization from literary fiction, but literary fiction can learn a lot from genre fiction about plotting. Sometimes, a book hit the blend of these two perfectly—like City of Thieves—but not often.
In my very subjective opinion, All the Light We Cannot See began much too slowly. I came away from the first half feeling like it was a missed opportunity for both the plot and the complexity of both our main characters: Werner speaks both French and German in Nazi Germany—this could have been use to create much more initial internal or external conflict in the plot, and it would have made the ending all the more sweet. And the magical stone in question—a little more exploration of its temptations and effects could have strengthen the plot for Marie-Loure and her father in the beginning as well.
In other words, using stronger plotting in the beginning—a genre fiction technique— could have strengthened the transformative pieces of the book, making good literary fiction great. Of course, not all readers felt this way about the beginning of this book, but most literary fiction reader have run into the problem of slow starts before.
Why do we readers accept such slow beginnings from (otherwise good) literary fiction? Why do we keep reading? Because other “good readers” recommended the book? Because it won the Pulitzer? If so, this makes discoverability in the world of literary fiction exceptionally difficult—people don’t try your book unless it comes recommended.
I think the worlds of literary fiction and genre fiction could stand to step a little closer, and All the Light We Cannot See provides a perfect example of why.