This is the kind of book that makes me want to go back to every other book review I’ve posted and knock down each rating by a star. In other words: It set a new standard in my eyes. I’m not even going to apologize for the fact that it took me over a month to read and review it for the blog. I do not regret a single minute I dwelt within these pages – I only regret the ones that passed before I decided to start reading it in the first place!
I can now count myself among the lucky readers who have been taken along on the colorful and heartrending journey that unfolds between the covers of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
This is Anthony Doerr’s second published novel, his first being About Grace in 2004. His most recent published work was a collection of stories, and prior to that, a memoir. At the time I was reading this book, I’d never heard of Doerr and didn’t know his history as a writer, but the skills he honed through those previous works shine in this format. Doerr seamlessly weaves separate stories together throughout the novel, but no detail is ever overlooked or lost. He also writes in a way that is poignant and reflective – perfect for portraying the very true historical setting of this story – which I believe demonstrates his previous success with a memoir.
This story takes place across decades, but it settles into the early 1940s for its main plotline. The setting is Europe – both France and Germany and little cities scattered between. Marie-Laure is a young blind girl who lives with her father, the museum locksmith, in France; Werner is a young orphan boy who lives in a children’s home with his sister, Jutta, in Germany. By the end of the novel, each of these young children will be far from where they started, and their paths will have intertwined – albeit briefly.
As you might have deduced from the time frame and locale of this story’s setting, World War II is the backdrop against which the main plot plays out. It is unlike any other WWII novel I have read, and Doerr is masterful at personifying one of the archetypes of history that I have always found inhuman: a Nazi German. Not only did I feel compassion for Werner Pfennig as he is forced through the system, but I also found myself empathizing with his internal struggles over the tortuous protocol. It was an alarming and eye-opening read. A child is still a child, even if that child is a Nazi, and I identified him more in terms of his youth than the man who the system forced him to perform as.
At the same time, Marie-Laure is one of the loveliest, most intriguing, most endearing characters I have ever read about. Her resolve, strength and bravery makes her stand out among my favorite heroines (and yes, I would count her as a heroine after enduring what she did). Her disadvantage – blindness – is to the reader’s advantage, as it gives Doerr room to describe the world using senses other than sight. To Marie-Laure, the world is described by sound and touch and taste, and it is all the more vivid because of it.
Werner’s journey takes him through Schulpforta, a Nazi school system, and then into the field, and Marie-Laure’s journey takes her to Saint-Malo, where she and her father live with an agoraphobic uncle who blooms with Marie-Laure’s presence. Both stories share the world of science and art: Werner is a budding engineer who can fix any radio; Marie-Laure is like a sponge, observing everything and learning about the earth around her, particularly the mollusks and snails that inhabit the seaside Saint-Malo. It is the radio, ultimately, that will bring their stories together.
This story made me question and examine things about myself, and it also opened my eyes even further to the horrors and evil of WWII. Finishing this around Veteran’s Day made it all the more significant for me, as it was increasingly clear from this story that everybody involved in the war – no matter what their role, even just as bystander or baker – was so profoundly affected.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and it is the kind of book that I will not soon forget.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Stats: 544 pages
Recommended for: Readers who want to fall in love with reading again or who need to get lost in another world for a while. This novel will make you grateful for words and the masterful minds who know how to use them beautifully.