When I tell you that this book contains multitudes, I’m not exaggerating. It spans time and space and galaxies, taking us from the 15th century siege of Constantinople to a spaceship of humans fleeing a dying plant to 20th-21st century suburban Idaho. You’d be forgiven for abdicating then and there and thinking, no thanks.
‘Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world.’
In our 15th century timeline, Omeir is a young village boy who is conscripted into the invading Ottoman army. In the same timeline, Anna lives within the walls of Constantinople, an orphan who is fed and clothed in return for embroidering religious garments for holy men. With no access to education, a chance encounter with written language sparks an insatiable curiosity.
‘Almost overnight, the streets glow with meaning. She reads inscriptions on coins, on cornerstones and tombstones, on lead seals and buttress piers and marble plaques… each twisting lane of the city a great battered manuscript in its own right.’
Access to knowledge is central, too, to Konstance’s story. Effectively imprisoned on a ‘windowless disk hurtling through interstellar space’ a hundred or so years from our present day, the spaceship is governed by an AI called Sybil, containing the ‘collective wisdom of our species’. Within the on-board VR library, Konstance is able to explore earth – through a three-dimensional Google Earth type of technology – and begin to piece together the central mysteries about her existence.
In modern-day Idaho, Zeno is a former Korean war veteran with a passion for ancient Greek who works at the Lakeport public library. Seymour is a vulnerable teenage boy who enters the library on a cold February day in 2020 to detonate a bomb.
‘Ambitious’ is certainly the right word for this epic, meticulous novel from Anthony Doerr. The problem is that Doerr doesn’t really know quite how to channel, or hone, his ambition. There’s a lot to love in this book – his trademark way of rendering people and place with precision and empathy, a highly imaginative retelling of worlds far removed from our own, a genre-blending of historical, fantasy, science fiction. But the ambition of the book overwhelms it more than once.
The thread that ties together these seemingly disparate narratives of Zeno, Omeir, Konstance, Anna and Seymour is an ancient Greek story by Antonius Diogenes, telling the comical and fantastical tale of a shepherd’s misadventures to a city in the sky. That story in itself isn’t that important – the point that Doerr seems to be making is that the survival of ancient, long-forgotten texts is a miracle in itself. Upon learning of the discovery of the ancient manuscript, centuries after its inception, Zeno’s voice fills with emotion.
‘Erasure is always stalking us, you know? So to hold in your hands something that has evaded it for so long—’
It’s a compelling premise – but I’m not sure that the central idea is compelling enough to bind this 600+ page novel together, and for the reader to see it through. The worlds are imaginatively crafted, the characters developed and distinct – but we don’t get enough time with any of them, leading to a disjointed reading experience – interrupted further by passages from the Diogenes text throughout, a story that didn’t really interest me much.
All The Light We Cannot See is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years (I mean, it won the Putlizer – that’s not an original thought) and I had so many aspirations for this book. I feel a twinge of sadness that it wasn’t all I was hoping it to be – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be that for other readers.
With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Cloud Cuckoo Land will be published on the 28th September, 2021.