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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Review: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr.

This felt like a really timely read in the lead up to tomorrow's EU referendum which will, in one sense, be an exercise in how the British see themselves - as part of a wider European collective, or its own entity, not least in the way we regard 'foreigners'.

Told in short chapters that are, at their longest, three pages long, All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of World War Two from the primary points of view of two characters; Marie-Laure, a Parisian who becomes blind at a young age; and Werner, an orphan whose skills with a radio change the course of his life.

To say this book is a page-turner doesn't really do it justice. Usual 'page-turners', though entertaining, are usually fast paced novels with some element of action, thrill, or insurmountable odds to overcome. This book contains all three of those, but the substance is much richer. From its beautiful and vivid descriptions of Paris, Saint-Malo, Berlin,  to the gritty and bleak reality of the orphanage and the specialist Nazi schools, to the insight of the human condition and how we can be swayed - or not - by the turning of the tide, it has human empathy and diversity of experience at its core.

It also offers a lot of 'what-ifs' to the reader to make you think about how the course of these characters' lives would have changed under different circumstances. What if Werner had never learned to fix a radio? Would he have succumbed to the mines like his father? What if Marie-Laure's father had not worked at the museum? Would that have meant they stayed in Paris? Or, if they had still left, headed to Saint Malo?

What if the Nazis had not had the power of the radio at their disposal? Would young German boys and girls have grown up without such a grim and harsh nationalism? What would have happened to their propaganda, then?

Ultimately, as the end of this novel shows, time and time again human compassion wins over darkness - in this form, the 'otherness' of the opposing side. To paraphrase the late MP Jo Cox, there is far more than unites us than divides us. In light of the current political climate, I think it is such an important book to read that will show you in the end, a call to extreme nationalism and  emphasis on borders will be nothing short of toxic and ruinous. We can and should be united by the fact that we are all human and we all want to live, not merely survive.

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