All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Last night I turned the final pages of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It was a really profound read. And the strangest thing kept happening to me…every time I picked it up, and began to read, I had the sudden yearning to write. So much so, that for the first time, I started to write a book review long before I’d finished it.
You may have read my previous book review on Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy. After reading it, a friend asked to borrow The Passage. He offered me a book of his own, a Pulitzer prize winner no less, throwing in enticing lines such as “It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read”…how could I say no?
Lending a favourite book to someone can either go incredibly well or incredibly badly…if they love it, you’ve made a book buddy for life. If they hate it, you may just feel like snatching the book out of their hands and smacking them with it (without doing it damage of course!)…or is that just me? So we both took a leap of faith and handed our precious paperbacks over to each other. I’m still waiting for his feedback! Of course, no smacking involved, whatever his opinion is…maybe.
All The Light We Cannot See – A Novel Review
I started reading All the Light We Cannot See and could see that he was right. It really was beautifully written. The novel revolves around the separate experiences of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a young Nazi soldier, Werner, as their paths slowly but surely converged during the course of the Second World War.
This in itself was alluring to me – I have always absolutely loved this era in history, it’s almost unbelievable events, and the lessons it taught humanity about the lengths of depravity people are capable of. I’ve visited the concentration camps of Terezin in the Czech Republic and Dachau in Germany, and stood on the edge of a field of graves of a thousand nameless victims. I’ve visited Checkpoint Charlie and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and seen how the city has recovered in less than a century since the war ended. I’ve visited Amsterdam and the attic in which Anne Frank lived the last, horrific years of her life. I’ve always been fascinated by the time period, in an almost morbid way I suppose.
It didn’t take long for me to get engrossed, and after getting about half way through had to put the book down for nearly a whole week (unheard of for me) because it was so emotionally stimulating. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. The touching way that Doerr writes of the war and the experiences from both sides of the lines was just so captivating. He wrote in such an interesting way – the storyline was tantalisingly revealed almost in its entirety right from the beginning in short, teasing chapters.
This is because All the Light We Cannot See jumps around quite a lot time-line wise – the plot gives away hints and clues as to where the story is leading from the first page. We meet sixteen year old Marie-Laure hiding alone in an apartment in the epicentre of a war-ravaged city, then jump back to her youth. Losing her sight at a young age, she and her father together construct an ingenious way for her to learn her way around the massive city that is Paris. Doerr makes clear their love for each other, and the beautiful relationship they have together.
I have always been a self-proclaimed daddy’s girl. I have vivid memories of waiting to hear the front door open at night, listening for the heavy wood to creak as my dad arrived home from being away (sometimes for months at a time) at work. I would leap up, and scream “Daddyyyy!” as my little legs took me as fast as they could to jump up into my father’s arms. And no matter how exhausted, how tired and worn out and over life he was, he’d always have time for me. I know the adoration a girl can have for her pa, and the fierce love and protectiveness a father can have for his girl.
As the war progresses, Marie-Laure’s father is given a precious secret to guard, and they are forced to flee their homes to Saint-Malo, a french seaside city, and live with her great-uncle Etienne. One day her father leaves and never returns. This is probably one of the parts of the book that broke my heart the most, knowing where she would end up and being unable to do anything about it as you read her tumultuous journey. It’s made slightly better, however, by the metaphoric way that she thinks about her experiences. Her imaginative descriptions of the world around her give an extra depth to the story, Doerr uses it almost as an excuse to paint the picture of every scene in as extravagant a way as possible, and to be honest – I loved it.
On the other side of the coin, our male protagonist Werner has a completely different, though no less tragic, story. A working class orphan, with a set direction in life that is out of his control – no family other than his younger sister Jutta and Frau Elena, the orphanage’s mother hen. He is a fiercely intelligent boy with a fascination for science, in a world that respects him for his manual skills, and it’s no surprise, really, that the appeal of the bourgeoisie Hitler Youth is almost enough to make him forget himself. When he receives an offer to explore the world and his love for radios, he jumps at the chance to leave his life behind and follow the Nazis into the war.
Every time you feel as though Werner has gone over to the dark side, the author brings us back to his inner thoughts, his ‘little boy lost’ vulnerability and naivety that makes you empathise with him all over again. This is highlighted elegantly by his even more doomed friend, Frederick, when he says
“Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”
They say history is written by the victors, and so reading Werner’s Reich-driven recount of the end of the war is something that I found quite poignant – his pessimistic recognition of the fabric of the war coming apart at the seams, and his inner despair at the monstrous acts he and his comrades have participated in, all in the name of purity and order. His internal monologue was so tragic – especially as you could just imagine the magnificent person he could have been had he had a choice in the direction his life took.
Towards the end of the book, I thought I knew what was coming. I’d wanted the characters to meet for the longest time (especially after reading the blurb on the back of the book)…and all of a sudden the author reveals that they’ve already, in a way, met. I felt a bit robbed at this point, this moment that I’d been waiting for, this climax, and it’d already happened without you even realising. You realise that she’s been on his mind the whole time, and that he thinks of her whether he wishes to or not. She gives him the strength to finally stand up for what is right and this is reflected in his actions towards the culminating point of the novel. Marie-Laure is no less affected by the boy who saves her life not once, but three times.
Throughout the book, I cringed away from the unwavering loyalty some of the characters show towards Adolf Hitler and the Reich, pitying them for the blind way they march through the story, hating them for the atrocities they commit – made even worse by the fact that in this case, art is imitating life. I despaired for the chances lost and possibilities ended all in the name of war. I sighed at the uplifting moments found despite such horror, and I delighted in the quiet beauty that perseverance and optimism can have in such terrible times.
So – final verdict is positive! The emotional roller coaster of the novel was made worth it by the stunningly gorgeous writing. No smacks for me. I certainly won’t forget this book in a hurry, and I recommend you read it for yourself. My next book review will be on something a bit more lighthearted! And possibly one day I’ll even review something I didn’t like?