“As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted participate in history could“As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted participate in history could escape.”
The Sympathizer promises to redefine the way you think about the Vietnam War. The narrator, a man of twisted, complicated loyalties, is meant to provide access to multiple viewpoints. The problem is that the narrator is so passive that none of these viewpoints really click or coalesce into anything meaningful.
The language is flowery and oddly sexualized, and while that does get better as the novel progresses it never really goes away. The plot itself meanders. There's a large digression where the narrator gets a job as an advisor to a Hollywood film about the Vietnam war that could ultimately be erased completely for all the meaning it ultimately has to the plot. All of which make it very difficult to care about this Sympathizer in the end.
You can find an expanded version of this review over on my blog.
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and aw"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
At the risk of overstating things, All the Light We Cannot See is far and away the most sumptuous, beautiful, and heartfelt book I've read in a great while. This is a book to get swept away in.
Werner Pfennig is a boy growing up in a foster home in a German mining village leading up to World War II with no options. Brilliant and full of yearning, he seems bound for a life in the mines where his father was killed. Until, that is, his unique skills with radios capture the attention of Nazi recruiters, who bring him into the Hitler Youth program to begin putting his skills to use.
Marie-Laure is a French girl who goes blind as a child. Her father works as a locksmith in a Parisian history museum and teaches her to be independent--using elaborate models of the city to teach her how to get around, and teaching her braille so she can get lost in worlds of fantasy like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Nazis invade France, Marie-Laure's father is sent on a mission to protect a precious gem in the museum's collection--a gem that has a powerful curse on it, according to legend.
Naturally, the book is sending Werner and Marie-Laure on a collision course. Most authors would try to pretend that this is a secret, but Anthony Doerr plays with the structure of his novel by opening with scenes of Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in a city on the coast of France as bombs are dropped, flashing back and forth between past and present to show both how they ended up in this situation and what happens when they arrive there. It really pays off, especially since he makes you care for his characters so deeply that you can't help but feel suspense regarding where they'll end up by the time you get to the last page. There's suspense--and not because Doerr is employing narrative tricks, but because you genuinely care about what happens.
With Werner, Doerr gets at a subtle, unique frame of mind about war. Nazis are usually used as stock villains in books and movies, and while they are villains here, we feel for Werner because he is trapped. As a poor boy, he doesn't have any options. He has no control over his own position in life. War wasn't something he chose, it was something thrust upon him. He had dreams bigger than the mines, and war was his only option to even attempt to go after them.
Marie-Laure's subplot adds a dash of magic, but without laying it on thick. The Sea of Flames, the cursed gem that falls into her possession, is the most literal example of this. But even here, Doerr is really just playing with the possibility of magic more than implying that it exists--and that is where All the Light We Cannot See really catches fire. There is an allure to magic and fantasy. You might even throw hope in the same category as magic and fantasy during times as dire as the one in which Werner and Marie-Laure live. In those situations, hope is an audacious but essential thing.
I read this book very slowly because in a weird way I wanted to spend more time with Doerr's characters. That is probably the greatest compliment I can offer.