Published by Scribner on May 6th 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
“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?”
What a gorgeous creature of a book.
I knew I needed to write a review for this book because I want to convince everyone to read it, but at the same time, it was such a struggle. Some books you just can’t describe, putting your finger on what you loved about them is difficult. But I will do my best.
All The Light We Cannot See is, simply put, beautiful. It’s a historical fiction novel set during World War II told from two perspectives. Marie-Laure is a blind French girl who has to flee her home of Paris with her father; the other is Werner, a German orphan who joins the Hitler youth and becomes a Nazi soldier. We also get some other perspectives interspersed throughout, but the focus is on the story of these two children and later on, young adults. It is told in a non-linear fashion and jumps between timelines so that we end up experiencing life before, after and during the war. This book is about the smaller players, the stories that usually go untold, that get forgotten in the turmoil of history.
The way the story is told is masterful. We have different perspectives, different timelines, seemingly completely unrelated story threads and chapters that are extremely short, sometimes less than a page. Yet somehow, Anthony Doerr managed to make all of it come together perfectly. The many perspectives never distracted from the main storylines, the book was never confusing or jarring and the short chapters served to pull the story along and made it more fast-paced, without ever feeling disjointed. And in the end, it all was woven together seamlessly. That moment when the pieces fell into place was priceless. I am in awe of this book.
The entire novel is incredibly empathetic and sensitive, none of the characters are portrayed as black or white. Everyone is wholly realized, complexly drawn and well fleshed-out, to the extent that you can understand all of their actions and motivations, despite the fact that they sometimes do horrific things. I felt for these character and was attached to them on a deep, personal level.
The prose is stunning and the wonderful imagery creates an atmosphere unlike anything I have ever read. It feels like a movie in the sense that the story is so visceral. But despite its poetic nature, the writing isn’t dense or too flowery: it flows, it creates, it brings to life. Beautiful passage after beautiful passage, All The Light We Cannot See interweaves haunting descriptions of war and pain with references to scientific discoveries, philosophical statements and French literature. It is constructed in such a way that you feel the magnitude and scope of every event that is happening. The anticipation of certain historical moments that we know are coming but the characters don’t, was both so powerful and harrowing.
The book is an exploration of the tragedy of war. We see these characters that are so full of promise and life be transformed by the violence around them; in ways that are absolutely heart-breaking. The novel questions how much power we truly hold over our own destinies and to what extent our fate is determined by the world around us.
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”
But the book doesn’t only reflect the horror of war on an individual level, it also offers glimpses into larger-scale events: the rape of women, the abuse and torture of prisoners, the way civilians are killed mistakenly and yet no authority would ever complain.
The theme of interconnectedness is ever-present, the way human connections can defy both time and space. It is a haunting and thought-provoking book, with so many hidden messages that I cannot even begin to unravel. It made me emotional but was never melodramatic and I didn’t feel like the author was purposefully tugging at my heartstrings.
In conclusion, I enjoyed every minute of reading this book and it’s one of my favourites of 2016, probably of all time. I can do nothing but highly recommend it anyone and everyone.
“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.”