When you’re a child and you use lots of complicated vocabulary in creative writing, people love it. You have discovered the secret to success. Praise and gold stars flood in on you merely for using the word “indubitably.” You might get featured on the good work board for knowing how to drop “iridescent” into a story, casual like. As a heavy childhood reader I had an impressive vocabulary which I wielded without abandon on any writing exercise. I still remember being praised for a story I wrote aged seven which ended with the line: “Not endless, I whispered. But fatal.”
Imagine my dismay when I discovered upon growing up that such use of the English language is actually looked down upon in adult writing. I have since spent a decade trying to simplify the writing that I once so proudly tied up in flouncy bows. It’s an ongoing effort: my first draft of the first line of this post was: “A teenager’s writing is praised for the same quality that is deplored in the adult writer.” In fact this whole blog is proof that I still can’t strip back enough – it’s littered with adjectives that I’ve been too childish to cull – “Look at the long word I know, Mum!”
Anyway, all of this introspection comes from reading a book which does not shy from some fancy writing – to, I think, spectacular results. All the Light We Cannot See runs two main narrative threads parallel to one another: one of a blind girl in occupied wartime France and one of an orphaned German boy whose technical skills draw him out of his mining destiny and into the Nazi army. Their stories are eventually woven together, but in the meantime it is their perception of a world beyond the visible – most obviously the radio – that draws them together. Rarely have I read a novel majoring on one theme quite as much, and Doerr explores this world beyond the visible – the “light we cannot see” – broadly, from smell to brain waves to radio waves. It’s sensual, and then goes beyond the senses too.
All of this is explored in gorgeous descriptive passages which create a liminal world hovering finely around and above the action. I loved it – but this is me, and I love the use of four words when one will do. The Guardian review calls this same prose that I was slavering over “high-pitched, operatic, relentless.” She goes on: “No noun sits upon the page without the decoration of at least one adjective, and sometimes, alas, with two or three. And these adjectives far too often are of the glimmering, glowing, pellucid variety. Eyes are wounded, nights are luminous and starlit, seagulls are alabaster. “Fields enwombed with hedges” is almost the last straw. And so the novel is far too long.” Who doesn’t want pellucid alabaster prose, I ask you? Though I have to agree with the final point – it’s at least 70 if not 100 pages too long and drags in the middle. The whole thing could have been roughly shaken by the shoulders, letting some plot details fly out and hit the walls.
But more on the book itself, lest you think it is a plotless vanity project. For it has a strong, almost fantasy plot in which a lost, mythical gem strangely fits with this shining hinterland of particles. A blind girl, a fantastic great-uncle, the great halls of the Parisian Natural History Museum, the cobbled streets of wartime St Malo, mystery and puzzle… but just as you thought it was all getting a bit of a fable, Werner’s narrative is of the deprivation of a German mining town, the atrocities of a Nazi boys’ school and then of the war itself, not flinching from murder and rape. You’d think these wouldn’t make convincing bedfellows but somehow Doerr knits the whole thing toegether into a dark precious stone, glittering with good and evil. In fact, certain tragedies and atrocities are all the more powerful nestled up to the more innocent parts of the story.
In short, it works. Do yourself a favour: don’t be scared of a bit unctuous overwriting and get this book in your hand this summer. It’s a little bit of magic.