All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Pub. Date: May 6, 2014
Summary: Marie Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII
In a sentence: All the Light We Cannot See is a haunting, lyrical novel that broke my heart a hundred times over – and I would gladly allow it another hundred shots.
Calling it now: All the Light We Cannot See is going to be the book to read this summer and it will definitely appear on numerous Best Of lists at the end of the year. I knew going into it that it wouldn’t be a happy-go-lucky tale (wartime fiction rarely is), but I hadn’t expected to be so thoroughly enchanted by the characters Doerr created.
In Germany, orphans Werner and his sister Jutta are living in a house with several other children and a sweet caretaker, Frau Elena. Though Elena originally came from France, these days she takes care with her words, no longer singing the lullabies from her youth and hiding what remains of her accent the best she can. While Werner was always a bright child full of wonder and questions, it’s during this time that he discovers a penchant for repairing radios. Word of his skills quickly spread and soon he’s recruited for a military academy where his brain will be put to good use.
When she was six Marie-Laure lost her eyesight. Since then, her ever-patient Papa has been building a miniature of their town, helping her memorize the streets and intersections. Soon Marie is able to get about, knowing just how many steps she needs to take to get to where she’s going. When rumors begin circulating about the threat of war, Papa thinks nothing of it. His job at the museum will keep them safe. As the months wear on, however, it’s clear those rumors have become fact. The two head to Saint-Malo, Papa carrying a special package and Marie-Laure with her favorite book, and seek refuge at Uncle Etienne’s house.
You know those novels that are so beautiful and have such an effect on you that nothing you say could ever do it justice? All the Light We Cannot See is one of those books. I cheered when Marie realized she knew her way around town. I panicked when two boys in the orphanage joined the Hitler Youth. I teared up countless times. This novel elicited such a range of emotion and I truly loved every minute.
It’s not just the main characters I came to care for. Frederick, a boy at the military academy, had such a fascination with birds. He could hear a bird and know exactly what kind it was. Frederick was just about the closest thing you could get to a wholly good person during the war and I still can’t give too much thought to his story without becoming misty-eyed. While Etienne becomes far more prominent in the latter half of the book, his past was something I couldn’t forget. Etienne’s brother, Marie-Laure’s grandfather, fought in the First World War and never came home. Since then, Etienne has refused to leave the house, bunkering down in his bedroom, sometimes not even leaving his bed. He has an array of radios and when they were younger, he and his brother would broadcast science programs for children. It’s one of these broadcasts that Werner hears all the way in Germany.
While its 500+ pages might seem daunting and intimidating, this book is actually a quick read. The chapters are ridiculously short, the majority clocking in at under three pages. Some chapters aren’t more than a few paragraphs. In an interview he did with Powells, Doerr explains his reasoning:
My prose can be dense. I love to pile on detail. I love to describe. I’m much more reluctant to give the reader entrance into a character’s feeling than describe what’s around him or her and have the reader intuit the internal life of a character. I know that’s demanding, so this was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, “I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.”
I, for one, would gladly read another 500 pages of his lyricism.
I’m not entirely sure why I was under the impression that this would be a love story (perhaps cliches and tropes have become so ingrained in my mind that I automatically think every story will be romance – this one’s all on you, YA), but Marie and Werner don’t meet until the very end. And even then it’s for such a short time. All the Light We Cannot See didn’t need romance to keep it afloat.
There’s also a side plot involving a legendary jewel that’s said to come with a curse. The gemstone had been in the museum, but when the pieces were moved to the countryside, the stone went with it. Three replicas were made, and the four men who are transporting the stone have no idea whether they have the real one or an imitation. Daniel LeBlanc, Marie’s Papa, is one of those men. There was a fairy tale-like quality to this story that I think blended beautifully with the horrors of war.
I could honestly go on and on about this gorgeous book. All the Light We Cannot See is not just a book that needs to be read, but one that needs to be bought – and after finishing I immediately ordered a copy of my own. I’m not familiar with any of Doerr’s other works – I hadn’t even heard of him until this book – but if they’re anything like this book, I need to get my hands on them, stat.
After she has gone back to sleep, after Etienne has blown out his candle, he kneels for a long time beside his bed. The bony figure of Death rides the streets below, stopping his mount now and then to peer into windows. Horns of fire on his head and smoke leaking from his nostrils and, in his skeletal hands, a list newly charged with addresses. Gazing first at the crew of officers unloading from their limousines into the chateau.
Then at the flowing rooms of the perfumer Claude Levitte.
Then at the dark tall house of Etienne LeBlanc.
Pass us by, Horseman. Pass this house by.
“But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?”
“I hope so. I hope we are.”
It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled. Marie-Laure still cannot wear shoes that are too large, or smell a boiled turnip, without experiencing revulsion. Neither can she listen to lists of names. Soccer team rosters, citations at the end of journals, introductions at faculty meetings – always they seem to her some vistige of the prison lists that never contained her father’s name.
Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.