Radio is not fashionable any more. The rot (or the revolution, depending on your view) set in years ago: television, online music downloads and auto-suggested playlists, smartphones. More and more people are listening to podcasts, but podcasts are a very different beast to radio. They’re full of star appearances telling sob stories, built into very specific media niches like weird deep-sea anemones. You have to be the right person for a podcast.
But radio is for everyone. If you have ever been awake late, alone, and turned on the radio, you will know what I mean. A quiet voice on the airwaves is one of the most comforting things there is. This is why people write so many books about the shipping forecast, or mount national protests when the BBC tries to close a station.
All the Light We Cannot See begins just as the lights are going out across Europe. In a bare Paris flat, in a cold German orphanage, in a beachside house with all the doors and windows sealed shut, a single voice is heard on the wireless: a rich, warm voice, explaining what the moon is made of or how electricity works. The kind of voice that can light a fire in a cold room. A voice for radio.
Despite its title, All the Light We Cannot See is actually about sound. Characters use radios for comfort, news, advancement, weapons, resistance, rescue; there isn’t a deus ex machina in this story, but there is certainly a divine machine. The story is very beautifully written, which tempts reviewers like me to get over-excited and go into purple prose. Doerr has a talent for creating small, perfect images, describing shells and streets in exquisite detail.
It’s a surprising talent, because it jars against the general tone of the story. This is one of those enormous, overarching novels that tries to tell the story of an entire world war through a handful of people who somehow keep bumping into each other at crucial points or places. To his credit, Doerr manages it more sensitively than most; but I’m still not a fan of the approach. Inevitably, complexities are glossed over, events are telescoped together, and less immediately interesting characters are dismissed.
There is an argument that war is by definition a story with loose ends and brutal generalizations, of course. Nobody’s getting out of here with a neat, happy ending. Despite the fairytale atmosphere, Doerr does not shy from including some horribly ugly scenes. There are the children with almost magical abilities, the kindly giant, the wicked wizard, the wise hermit, no parents in sight. There are also passages where a child is beaten so badly he has permanent brain damage, and a deafeningly matter-of-fact description of a gang-rape.
(I hesitated before giving my opinion about that chapter. The literary interpretation is that he is trying to convey the awful deadening, alienating feeling of sexual assault. But I think that one of the great weaknesses of this book is how Doerr can only describe women from the outside. One of the central characters is a young teenage girl, blind, experiencing the world through touch, living through hunger and physical trauma; but she might as well be a ghost for all the sense of physicality that Doerr gives her.)
Doerr has managed to find some aspects of the World War II story which are rarely told, and he continues the story long beyond the point where most writers describe a VE Day party and sign off. The book is worth reading for these perspectives, as well as the descriptive writing. You can try it for yourself here.