by: Seth Reid
In an interview with The Guardian, Anthony Doerr said that growing up just outside Cleveland meant growing up in a place “where to call yourself a writer would be precocious. Or pretentious.” Coming of age surrounded by this stigma, an observer might be surprised that Doerr has had such success with writing in the past. He has won numerous awards for his short fiction, including the 2010 Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and in 2007 he was placed on Granta’s list of 21 Best Young American Novelists. But an observer of Doerr’s somewhat anti-literary upbringing would be in for an ever greater surprise when they heard that Doerr’s latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
However, to people who have read Doerr’s work, his enormous success comes as no surprise at all. And to those who haven’t had a chance yet, All the Light We Cannot See is the perfect place to start. The plot, set during World War II, details the separate lives of two children, one a French girl who goes blind at the age of six, the other a German boy whose prowess with radios leads him to a career in the military. Though the children set out on these very different paths, Doerr meaningfully connects their lives even before their stories converge in Saint-Malo during the German occupation.
Of course, the meeting between the adult versions of Marie-Laure and Werner is by no means the end of the story. In fact, All the Light We Cannot See boasts an intimidating 544 pages. But the physical size of the book shouldn’t discourage readers who are looking for something a bit more accessible than most hefty literary epics tend to be. Doerr’s novel is undeniably grand in terms of scope and detail: Doerr mixes two unique perspectives in every chapter and approaches topics from culture to electrical engineering with scientific precision. But while All the Light We Cannot See is enjoyable as a sweeping narrative, Doerr’s prose is painstakingly constructed and remains pleasurable on an almost musical level as well.
The structure of the book, which has chapters sometimes as short as just two pages, makes the precision, scope, and poetry of the novel all very approachable. In a review of All the Light We Cannot See, The New York Times applauds Doerr for “giving this intricate book an extremely readable format.” And Doerr himself explained in an interview on Powell’s Books blog that he had no intentions of reserving his novel for professors of Literature. When asked why the book has such short chapters, Doerr says “This was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’”
However, if the achievement of a Pulitzer Prize is still not enough to convince you that All the Light We Cannot See is worth reading, we at WordTheatre encourage you to take in some of Doerr’s widely praised short fiction. Doerr is one of many authors whose short fiction we’ve celebrated by transforming them into live performances by great actors. Doerr’s “The Deep” was read brilliantly by Damian Lewis (Homeland) as a part of WordTheatre presents The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and the story is available for download via Audible.