Review: All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeFrom 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.

Rating: 4.5/5

Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was a memory falls out of the world. 

So well deserving of all the accolades. So many truthisms contained in this gem of a book. And although it’s historical fiction, it’s easily accessible in terms of the writing style – devastatingly simple in its execution, but embellished with descriptions that really focus on the senses, particularly since the main female character is blind.

The sea is heavy and slate-grey. There are no plaques for the Germans who died here. 

World War Two is an utterly fascinating period of history for me, as it is for many people. And I think one of the strengths of this novel is its dismantling of the overly-simplistic narrative: majority ‘bad Germans’. A few ‘good Germans’. And the glorious golden Allied conquerers. But here? Here we have the mass rapes perpetrated by the Soviet army as they conquered Berlin, in a horrific, if deliberately subtle scene that had the nausea rising up in my throat; we have Russian POWs bound together at a fence, with German privates placing live grenades in their pockets before running away; we have young teenage German soldiers returning home, traumatised, terrified, only to be dragged out of their mothers’ homes and shot in the street as deserters.

Werner is beginning to see, approaching his sixteenth birthday, that what the fuhrer really requires is boys. Great rows of them walking to the conveyer belt to climb on. Give up cream for the fuhrer, sleep for the fuhrer, aluminium for the fuhrer. Give up Reinhard Wohlmann’s father and Karl Westerholzer’s father and Martin Burchard’s father. 

I think many times we miss the fact that it’s so easy to get swept up in the tide. I think we like to imagine ourselves in the same situation as brave outspoken defenders of the victims, hiding our Jewish neighbours and defying occupation and rebelling against Nazi rule, for example. And yes, a major conclusion we can draw from the war experience is that evil thrives when good people, when bystanders do nothing. But I think it’s so easy to forget the climate of fear, the human drive for self-preservation of ourselves and those we love – you will say and do anything to keep your family safe. No matter who you have to throw under the bus to do it.

“Then help us.”
“I don’t want to make trouble, Madame.”
“Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?”
“Doing nothing is doing nothing.”
“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

“It’s not a person you wish to fight, Madame, it’s a system. How do you fight a system?”
“You try.”

And for the German people, particularly young boys, who got caught in the cogs of the machine? Well, the book shows exactly what happens to those who don’t toe the party line. You have no choice but to keep on going, because there is no option to leave, to back out. And I think it’s very easy for us to sit here and judge. (This is in no way attempting to defend the atrocities committed, btw.) By the time most people realised how far Hitler was prepared to go in pursuit of German national pride, there was no way out. It reminds me of the metaphor of the frog in the boiling water.

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.” 

The book shifts in time between the pivotal final stand-off in the captured French town of Saint Malo, and the lives of Marie Laure and Werner Pfennig, our two main characters, tracing their lives from childhood to their involvement in the war. We also encounter perspectives from a number of side characters, whose narration serves to enrich the story as a whole.

He says “The war that killed your grandfather killed sixteen million others. One and a half French boys, most of them younger than I was. Two million on the German side. March the dead in a single-file line, and for eleven days and eleven nights, they’d walk past our door.” 

The novel is one I would describe as a ‘quiet’ book. There are no pulse-pounding combat scenes, for example. The overall mood is bittersweet. There is a certain sense of melancholy, the knowledge that not everyone you come to care about in this book will make it though, because this is war. And the inner conflict that comes from caring for characters who wouldn’t ordinarily garner sympathy.

The socialisation of war was also horrifying to read about – the process of trying to turn young boys into killers, the dehumanisation that occurs, the overall devastating experience that war has on the psychologies and physicalities of those who are involved in it, civilians and soldiers alike.

He was just a boy. They all were. Even the largest of them. 

I was impressed with the ingenuity of the captured French, and their seemingly small rebellions. Bravery comes in different forms. It doesn’t have to be big bold gesture. Sometimes it is as small as carrying a loaf of bread from a bakery. Sometimes it’s as small as ignoring a radio transmission.

And finally, the small acts of people, as the blurb says, trying to be good to one another.

“It was not,” says Jutta, reaching the limits of her French, “very easy to be good then.”

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10 thoughts on “Review: All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

  1. Wow, I just got goosebumps! I have to read this immediately. I like the quiet & bittersweet tone – I think the best stories are either one or the either, and sometimes even both. Wonderful review.

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  2. I’ve been dying to read this since it came out – have heard nothing but raves. I feel like it’s a book I need to read in the summer when I can take my time with it. Putting it on the list along with the Goldfinch, which I also haven’t read…
    Jen @ YA Romantics

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    1. Yes, you’ll want to be able to savour it – while it doesn’t drag, it’s certainly not a punchy, fast read. Ah, I haven’t read the Goldfinch either, but I do have The Secret History on my shelf to read first.

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  3. I’m so glad you ended up loving this one as well! I have been wanting to read it, but it keeps get pushing back on my TBR. I hope when my holiday comes around I will have time for this. Beautiful review, this book sounds incredibly moving.

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