All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

I’ve read a lot of books based in war times. This one, I half expected to be the same as the rest, leaving me with a dull depression – because the war was real and affected so many people in terrible ways.

All the light we cannot see was a little different. Dare I say it? It was a masterpiece.

The book is set over the period leading up to and including the second world war, and we see events unfold from two angles.

  1. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who lives with her father, a locksmith commissioned by the museum.
  2. Warner Pfennig is a German orphan living in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta.

These two stories unfold simultaneously. In fact it was a surprise how short the chapters were (2-3 pages) and how quickly the story jumped back and forth.

To make the structure even more interesting, and compelling, the action is non-linear. It starts in the height of the action in 1944, in the city of Saint-Malo as it is being bombed by the Allied forces to recapture it from the Germans. We meet Marie-Laure and Werner, and are then scooted back to 1934 to see the preceding events unfold.

It is an excellent literary device to start right in the centre of action and danger, and this keeps us in suspense throughout the entire novel as we keep flipping to the past and then back to the main action.

I haven’t read a war story from this point of view before. Two people who are completely not at fault though they exist at either side. Just two kids caught up in their countries’ problems.

Marie-Laure lives a good life with her father, who takes great care of her and ensures she is happy despite her disability. When Paris is bombed and her father is burdened with a secret treasure from the museum to protect, they flee to Saint-Malo and she continues to live reasonably well off with her great-uncle. Until her father leaves.

Similarly, Werner is happy in his youth. The orphanage’s caretaker is kind, Werner gets on well with his sister and he discovers a keen interest in radios and learning. He becomes the village radio repairman, is eventually discovered for his talents and sent to a special school to be properly trained. He is then sent to war before he is old enough, to put his radio knowledge to use for the war efforts.

Doerr’s language is beautiful, intricate, complex and yet easy to follow.

…maybe her father is right: Earth is all magma and continental crust and ocean. Gravity and time. Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

In a chapter that follows the thought paths of Marie-Laure’s father after the bombings in Paris:

Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock has its key. You can go back to Paris or you can stay here or you can go on.

What an amazing, convincing and yet simple paragraph coming from the thoughts of a locksmith. It perfectly depicts how his character suits his profession and vice versa.

There’s this:

It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralised water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather.

An incredible way to put into words how young boys were brainwashed into fighting for Hitler and Germany. Werner feels in his gut that Germany’s cause is wrong, yet he is swept up in fighting for it along with the rest of these unknowing boys.

My favourite line of the whole book is probably this:

It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is.

I could go on and on with more beautiful parts of the book, but the best thing to do is just tell you to read it yourself. It was really beautiful.

I wondered about the title too, All the light we cannot see, and I think that it refers to a few things. Things that are going on behind the scenes, that have nothing to do with us yet we are swept up in. Feelings and emotions. But most prominently, this book speaks a lot on the radio, and at the end about text messages and the internet and how all these messages are moving around us. They hold so much meaning and importance, yet they aren’t a physical thing we can see.

There’s also a touch of fantasy in this book… A beautiful, mythical jewel that may or may not hold special powers.

I loved it.


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