book review, historical fiction, history

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Amazon blurb:

From 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.


I was late to the party on this one, as it won the Pulitzer in 2014 and was also a National Book Award finalist. ATLWCS’s style is very different from what I’m used to, but it did bring me back to that literary, “high brow” work I often read in Grad school (you know, the kind you sometimes just want to roll your eyes at…) And Doerr’s style is as literary as they come; with effortless technical, scientific language that is both evocative and unconventional in terms of sentence structure, and overall structure. ATLWCS is split into particularly small chapters that are vignette-like in their poetic, thoughtful nature. The plot jumps around a timeline and from major and minor characters, between parallel stories, all threads finally converging around 80% into the book. The non-linear format was sometimes disconcerting, especially when Doerr jumped to a minor character whose importance was not revealed until further into the plot.

Without giving away too much, since I like to keep these reviews fairly spoiler-free, much of the plot revolves around a rare, allegedly cursed stone called the Sea of Flames. I actually wondered at one point why the book wasn’t titled that, but I suppose that would have been too easy (and perhaps too aggressive given the ethereal images the actual title evokes.) All the Light We Cannot See clearly alludes to the magic and wonder Marie-Laure still sees in the world despite her being blind–and the same applies to Werner, who comes of age in a stark, unforgiving, brutal time in Germany’s history. The title and themes attached also highlight that fragile, glowing hope either held close or destroyed during conflict.

Some characters touch us briefly but deeply, which makes their fates all the more heartbreaking. There is no fuss in Doerr’s prose–all clean lines and angles, despite the conscious choice to sometimes ignore structure and grammatical rules. Doerr’s descriptions are often presented in a way Marie-Laure might “see” the world–with enhanced senses of touch and smell. We can feel the grain of the tiny wooden house model, smell the brine of the sea. I think it was in this way, along with how the book was split up, that I often saw the events blocked out in terms of a screenplay.

ALTWCS is thoughtful, albeit depressing, although I appreciated its resistance to tropes and sugar-coating. If you’re worried about taking on a tome over 500 pages – don’t be. It is split up so much that you won’t even notice, and furthermore Doerr’s clean, no fuss prose makes for a fluid read (even if you want to roll your eyes sometimes.)

Grade: B+

(PS: I’m going to try to do more reviews in 2017)