Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre(s): fiction, historical, literary
Length: 531 pages
Published: May 6th 2014
All the Light We Cannot See was the first book I read in 2018, and that was due solely to friends of mine who recommended it several times. I had seen the book floating around my local library for a while and I thought the cover was beautiful, but, at that time, was still wary to venture into reading books published in the 21st century (2018 has been a year of realizing how wrong I was!). Nevertheless, when I saw it again at the library, I checked it out before someone else could snatch it off the shelf. Once I picked it up, I could hardly put it down.
In short, All the Light We Cannot See is the story of how the lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan boy, come together in the city of Saint-Malo during World War II. But the premise is deceivingly simple. The interweaving of Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories begin long before Saint-Malo, taking shape from the time they were small children living hundreds of miles apart—Werner in a poor coal-mining town at the beginning of Hitler’s rise in Germany, and Marie-Laure in Paris with her father, the locksmith at the Natural History Museum. The story traces their paths full of twists, revelations, and sorrows from childhood into young adulthood until the anticipated climax, which, despite being known from the beginning, is still as suspenseful and surprising as if it were hidden.
When my friends first recommended this book, they sang the praises of its beautiful prose, and it didn’t take me long to realize my friends were correct—the most striking feature of All the Light We Cannot See is the skill of Doerr’s writing style. Every detail is unusual but accurate, and illuminates (pun intended) the world in an immersive way. Even more impressive, Doerr uses telling descriptions often, but it never bogs down the flow of the story because of the details. He approaches narration almost like a scientist, and his extent of knowledge about the world of his characters is impressive, but every sentence also brims with life and emotion. Here’s an example from page 27:
“Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. “Can you see this?” ask the doctors. “Can you see this?” Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life. Spaces she once knew as familiar—the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street—have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big.
What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ear. In the stairwell, in the kitchen, even beside her bed, grown-up voices speak of despair.”
The other interesting feature of the book’s prose is its chapter organization. There are fourteen sections (Zero-Thirteen) organized by date, but not in chronological order. Each section contains chapters without numbers and the chapters can vary from one-half a page to several pages. In description this seems overly complex, but Doerr switches points of view and timelines so smoothly and so clearly that it creates tension, emotion, and anticipation instead of confusion. I felt as if I could relax my inhibitions because Doerr knew exactly where he was taking the story, which is a feat that few authors achieve.
The story centers on two main characters: Marie-Laure and Werner. Marie-Laure is quiet, serious, patient, and perceptive of the world; Werner is reserved and calculating yet pure in his pursuit of knowledge. Their shared curiosity of the world is one of the many threads that tie the two together, and simultaneously separates and connects their different backgrounds and struggles. Marie-Laure lives a safe and secure life up until the war but faces a serious disability; Werner is physically well but lives in poverty in an orphan house. Marie-Laure must evacuate her city and move in with distant relatives to avoid the war; Werner must joint Hitler’s Youth and become part of the war whether he wants to or not. Although I ended up feeling more attached to one over the other, both stand out as compelling protagonists and carry the story well. I felt immense sympathy for the pain both felt during the course of the war.
The side characters are also vivid, from Marie-Laure’s father and great-uncle, to Werner’s sister Jutta, to German Sargent von Rumpel, to the other boys in Hitler’s Youth. The skill of Doerr’s prose even brings to life brief and unnamed people who move in and out of the backdrop of events. The only complain regarding the characters, without giving spoilers, is that I wish Jutta had more time within the story, not only to show more of Werner’s background but because of her importance later on.
All the Light We Cannot See is a literary piece of fiction, but despite the focus on the day-to-day events of the characters, the plot is not sacrificed for their sake. And while the climax of the plot is known from the cover-flap synopsis (which, if handled incorrectly, could have made the story drag), there is never a sense of predictability. Tension builds slowly, emphasized by the often short chapters. Plot twists turn at perfectly unexpected moments. With the exception of some unnecessary moments later in the book, every scene and every chapter is necessary in either moving the action forward or revealing important details about the characters and world (sometimes both). I was overall impressed with how well Doerr integrated the plot in a way that strengthened the novel while not drawing attention to the framework of the story.
The story spans several years and several places—Paris, Zollverein, Saint-Malo, the German countryside, Werner’s school (the National Political Institutes of Education), and great-uncle Etienne’s towering house, to name a few. But, as I mentioned when describing the prose style, the novel is so full of unusual detail that each place—whether lingered on for a moment or lived in for years—is alive and bustling, and the movement from place to place is fluid rather than jerky. Time period changes between chapters or sections are also clearly marked, which makes the transition easier.
While the majority of the sensitive content in the novel is fitting for the time period and handled well, there is noticeable language once Werner goes away to school and to war. The nature of the war also lends to violent content—school and military training is harsh and needlessly cruel, bombs are dropped on cities, one character suffers permanent brain damage after getting beat up, characters are trapped under rubble, a character dies in an explosion. Sexual content is pretty low until a rape scene at the end of the novel (one that was entirely unnecessary for the story, as well, although the details are not gruesome).
All the Light We Cannot See is a rare sort of book. At a surface level, it appears to be like any other World War II fictional book masking itself as a piece of literary fiction, but it defies all assumptions with beautiful, poignant prose and a story that, while it shows the sorrows and horrors of war, also infuses the world with wonder and light. In a sense, it is far more realistic than the stories that focus so much on being realistic that they lose all hope. I would easily give the novel five stars if not for two problems, one legitimate and one personal. First, the rape scene at the end is entirely unnecessary and adds nothing to the plot. Second, while all of the plot choices made in the story are realistic, there is one relationship that ends in a way that disappoints me to this day, and, I think, should have left on a more positive note. For those reasons, I take my rating down to four stars but still highly recommend the book.