Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses All The Lights We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

Was it love at first sight?

Not at all, the cover is way too gloomy. It had been sat there for weeks, a forlorn impulse buy, gathering dust alongside the sickly follow up to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey (ugh, don’t understand the first book, let alone the second). But apparently I’m not alone; the publishing industry considered All The Lights We Cannot See as a slow burn way before it began to stealthily shuffle up the US best seller list. Poor Anthony Doerr, it took him 10 years to write and then they only went and printed a stingy 60,000 copies. Good job they went back and printed a shed load more.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

It’s ridiculously easy to slip into this book’s rhythm. It’s like being on the dodgems: three stories weave in and out of one another, but you know it’s only a matter of time before they bump crashingly into each other and give you whiplash.

First there’s Marie-Laure, a blind little French girl brought up by her locksmith father in the vaults and curio packed rooms of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where, hidden behind many doors, sits a cursed diamond, the Sea of Flame. Meanwhile, in a poverty stricken mining town in Germany, snow-haired seven-year-old Werner collects rubbish on the streets with his sister, until one day he comes across a broken radio and miraculously fixes it, gaining forbidden access to the wonderful, spellbinding science talks of a transmitter too far away. As World War II rumbles ever closer, the small worlds of these two shatter and someone comes a-hunting for them, but in their cores they might just be strong enough, good enough, to survive.

Did it make you laugh out loud?

No but it did make me sigh, frequently, in a good way. The kind of sighing that indicates to everyone else in the vicinity that you are mere seconds from blabbing rapturously and indulgently about how much you adored the last paragraph/chapter/phrase, only to then insist on reading said paragraph/chapter/phrase aloud until they too can sigh and nod along in similar rapture. The best time to do this, I find, is when you’re sat reading in the passenger seat and the designated driver can’t sidle out of the room.

Could you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Easily, but I fear everyone else you’re on holiday with would get absolutely sick of you not answering questions, forgetting to apply sunblock and generally ignoring everything until you’d finished it. Unless of course you’re going on holiday to St Malo, France, in which case you’d be able to keep up an informed commentary on exactly how the town was scarred during the war, simultaneously saving you a stack of euros on a tour guide and leaving more for moules frites. That’s what you call a winner.

How would you describe it behind its back?

Beautiful. It’s crafted with such skill and imagination it leaves you quite breathless.

How would it describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

To be honest, very little effort was required. It might look chunky, but the chapters are absolutely tiny. Barely more than three paragraphs long at times (short attention spans rejoice). You can absolutely breeze through it, which presents its own kind of torment. It’s like when you’re trying to nibble a pecan Danish slowly, but then absentmindedly finish it in a rush and feel a horrible kind of grief when you realise it’s gone. The WORST.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

In comparison to the wrenching experiences of these characters, even the worst haircut of my life cannot compete (and I assure, two weeks later I am still thoroughly upset about it). It’s difficult to suck much support and compassion from it for yourself, but a sense of perspective and the sting of salty sea air? Definitely.

Would you let it meet your other friends?

In theory, yes, in practice, no… This is not a book I am willing to share or lend out. If I could implement a fining system like a proper library, the way I did aged eight, using a broken Nintendo as a faux-stamping machine and accidentally putting my sisters off reading for life in the process, then maybe. However, the truth is, even the greatest of real friends have a habit of ‘borrowing’ books and squirrelling them away, never to be seen again. I won’t take the risk with this one. They can go get their own copies.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:

a) think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)

b) pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)

c) ditch it, obviously you were never really friends

A sad a). This is the kind of book that’ll give you a soft glow and trigger fragments of memory: snail shells lined up on a shelf, cake icing smeared across a lip, white peaches sweet and sticky in a tin. To re-read it would be to lose the magic of the first reading – I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it. I’d rather stick with the hazy memory of having loved it, rather than risk not enjoying it quite so much.


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.