Marie-Laure, blind since age six, lives in Paris with her father, the master of the locks at the Museum of Natural History. When the Germans occupy Paris in June 1940, the two flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure’s eccentric great uncle, Etienne.
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
Worlds apart, in Germany, orphaned Werner uses his talent at building and fixing radios to escape a hopeless future in the mines. His path through an elite and brutal military academy to the Hitler Youth and beyond leads him finally to Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure’s.
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
“Doerr’s gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of multiple characters, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.”AnthonyDoerr.com
All the Light We Cannot See is full of both heartwarming and heartbreaking moments. Doerr’s crisscrossing storylines gradually unfold through stunningly beautiful prose that marches relentlessly toward what can only be a tragic end. The narration makes frequent jumps both in point of view and in time, creating a gradual build-up whereby the reader knows where we will end up long before we understand how we got there. I simply had to keep reading, always wanting to know what would happen next.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Some reviewers have decried the novel’s flowery language and length, the copious description and how slowly everything happens. Personally, I think the slow unfolding of the plot is part of what makes this story so compelling. You can feel the inexorable march toward something terrible, the inevitability of time moving forward and being swept along with it, the dread increasing with every turn.
“War is a bazaar where lives are traded like any other commodity: chocolate or bullets or parachute silk.”
I enjoy rich prose that is full of imagery, and Anthony Doerr’s masterful use of language did not disappoint. His words are poetic without being cumbersome. His descriptions pull the reader into the scene until you’re right there, feeling the salty air of Saint-Malo on your face, or holding your breath in terror in the attic with Marie-Laure, or shivering in the night with Werner, from cold or terror or both as he faces a battle between the pressure to conform and his own sense of right and wrong.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”
The imagery of light is threaded throughout this tale of two young characters caught up on different sides of the war, just trying to stay alive. It’s a perspective that has been used countless times before, revealing the terrors of war through the eyes of children robbed of their childhood. But there’s something utterly unique about Marie-Laure’s viewpoint and the sense of wonder the world holds for her. Both main characters are sympathetic and likeable, and the characters surrounding them are endearing and add much to the story.
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Particularly wrenching are the chapters on Werner’s schooling. The language in these is sparser, with reason, touching on questions surrounding how ordinary people can become collaborators in such cruelty. Werner’s almost-friendship with Frederick gives disturbing insight into how easily the heart can be corrupted and become complicit in evil by simply not lifting a finger.
“Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways.”
“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?”
All the Light We Cannot See is meticulously researched and imaginatively written, a novel that is both thought-provoking and profound. Anthony Doerr manages to address the horrors of war while choosing to highlight the inherent goodness of his main characters. It’s well worth a read.
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”