Book Review – Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

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Undersized, snowy-haired German orphan Werner, is a genius with radios. He and his feisty little sister Jutta are wards in Frau Elena’s children’s home. At night they listen to a radio receiver that Werner found and restored and, sometimes, the enchanting feathery voice of a French man talking about light makes them dream that anything is possible.

Blind French girl Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, where her father, who guards the keys in the Museum of Natural History, has made a model of Paris to help her feel her way around the streets.

The war is pressing down on all of them. It will provide Werner with the unexpected opportunity to attend an elite, but brutal, school from where he will be dragged, too young and too small, into the conflict. Marie-Laure will find herself under the roof of her reclusive, damaged uncle in the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo.

The story opens with the walled city under heavy bombardment. Werner is trapped in a hotel basement in Saint-Malo and Marie-Laure is alone in her uncle’s house as the German army makes the old city the final German stronghold on the Breton coast during the dying weeks of the war.

Like the light we cannot see, there is a luminosity to Doerr’s prose, a glow of innate goodness in people forced to do evil, a pulse of energy in the folding timeline that doubles back on itself.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2015, a New York Times best seller, a finalist of other book awards, The Light We Cannot See took Doerr ten years to write. It was worth the wait and will always be in my top ten of all-time favourite books.

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About lynettefinch

Dr Lynette Finch. Once I was a poster designer and illustrator. I ran a small poster business called Mantis Prints, specializing in political posters during the odd days of the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland. I’m told my posters hung on the walls of Rizhsky railway station in Moscow, although I’m not sure about that. They are in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, on several on-line websites, and in the following book: Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington, eds. Light II, Contemporary Australian Art 1966-2006, Queensland Art Gallery Publishing, 2007, pp. 110-117. In my next incarnation I was a senior lecturer in history. I published books and articles on urban health and feeding people in modern industrial cities, on the Queensland home front in the second world war and the role and history of war propaganda. Sometimes I wrote about Marxism and its impact around the world as well as intimate oral histories of communists in Australia, their experiences in conservative society, their role as social and political radicals in small towns and cities. Once I went through a death phase and wrote about the role of the Coroners Court in colonial society, about abortion and infanticide in nineteenth century cities, and about the role of gossip in policing. My research took a decidedly happier direction when I was granted an Arts Fellowship to Antarctica in the 2007/08 season, as research for a biography about Antarctic surveyor and explorer Syd Kirkby. I bunkered down in a blizzard in Brooke's hut near Davis station and imagined what it was like for Syd, caught for twelve days in a 150-knot blizzard, high in the plateau beyond Mawson in 1960. Some of my books: Australia’s Frontline: Remembering the 1939-45 War. With the rapid escalation of the Pacific War in 1942, Queenslanders suddenly found themselves perilously close to the frontline, especially those in the far north. The book is based on interviews of men and women who worked their farms in the north, some of them Italians and Germans who were interned as enemy aliens. Nevertheless, the book is essentially a story of courage, of community spirit and neighbourliness, and of the public and private war effort of a community facing crisis and loss. Dark Angel: Propaganda in Modern Warfare. This book traces the origins and development of propaganda and media manipulation from the 1800s to today’s ‘spin’ and ‘false news’. Why have governments at war allocated resources to propaganda leaflets, broadcasts, movies and art during major military conflicts? Read the book. You’ll find the answer. The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance. Concepts like sexuality and class share the same moment of birth during the nineteenth century as social inquiry turned to analysis of the workings, population growth, thought patterns, economic systems and internal bodily workings of humans (or Man, to be historically accurate). How did these ideological concepts impact in the real world? A great deal, is the short answer, outlined in this book. Young in a Warm Climate: a history of childhood in Queensland is an edited volume about childhood on the Queensland frontiers, at school, at home, in hospitals and other institutions. Fixing Antarctica: Mapping the Frozen South. In 1956, in the height of the cold war, the biggest wintering expedition that Australia had ever sent to Antarctica set out to map the great frozen landmass of Antarctica, driven by official fears that the Soviet Union meant to take the continent for themselves. The fourteen scientists were chosen from a field of hundreds of applicants. The surveyor, the central character in Fixing Antarctica, was Sydney Kirkby. Over the next twenty years, Syd Kirkby explored and map more unknown regions in the world than any other person in history. Earth, Wind and Fire is essentially twelve generations of my father’s mother’s family but it’s much more than that. It’s kind of Game of Thrones without the dragons. It starts with a kidnapped girl in Shelford, Nottinghamshire in the east midlands of England in 1618 and follows an unbroken chain of recorded births, deaths and marriages which spans four centuries until, six generations later, her descendants flee their farms in Ireland and join the diaspora to Australia. Using family stories, family photographs, published diaries and official documents, it’s the interwoven stories of five families struggling to survive amidst the most tumultuous times in European history. What’s next? I’m wandering into the boggy territory of creative fiction, writing a series of crime stories set on King Island, a beautiful windy island in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania. I’ve finished the first draft of Book One, The Rock. There will be seven, I think. I’m also writing a stand along novel, called The Key Collector. It’s about a World traveller, Angela who settles in a Tasmanian village near her daughter and grandson where she witnesses a car crash that kills three women. Convinced the collision was an act of murder, she digs into the tragic lives of the victims and is mired in a mystery stretching across three continents and reaching into the second world war.

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