All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
Genre: historical fiction, war, World War II
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015, Audie Award for Fiction 2015, Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction 2014, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction 2015
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 neighbourhood 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.
The story is written in an absolutely amazing way; it shines with an ephemeral sense of connection between characters that have so little in common at first but whose lives are intertwined in most surprising ways. The slow exploration of this connection, the invisible ties that bind societies and people together just captures you for the next foreseeable hours; it is a most wonderful reading experience. This connection between characters isn’t showed in our face like so many stories about surprising connections usually do, pulling out the dreaded fate card; no, the author doesn’t do that but lets the connection slowly develop and deepen with each page.
At first our protagonists’ stories function independently, only the war tying them together, but then a series of coincidences, that they are completely unaware of, brings them closer to each other for one pivotal moment in their lives when they must confront who they are and what they are prepared to do to survive.
The story slowly gains momentum as the war unfolds, and the invisible radio signals that crisscross the continent change people’s fates, including Werner and Marie-Laure’s. The tale gets progressively darker but the writing style is so beautiful that the harsh reality can’t silence the music the author invokes in our minds at the start of the story. It may sound crazy, but I could hear so many sounds play in the background of Marie-Laure’s storyline – she describes her world through her remaining senses so vividly that you experience it with her. Sound, touch and smell just jump off the page, while for Walter the numerous parts of a radio are stark and visible, mentally appearing like a technical drawing. I love books that power up my imagination in this way and touch me on a deeper level at the same time.
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
Doerr doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war but for some reason the numerous tragedies he paints don’t feel central to the story. You feel them but at the same time you are slightly removed from their intensity, the invisible bonds so often evoked an anchor holding us tightly to our protagonists and the here and now. So despite the war and all its atrocities it is not a depressing read, or it wasn’t for me at least. Perhaps I’m already familiar with all the horrors and nothing can truly surprise me anymore about that time period, but I think it is the underlying humanity and altruistic motives we get to see that echo the longest within us. Terror and violence are fleeting and must end, but it is human bonds and kindness that last. I believe this message is what we should take away from this book. Doerr invokes this tiny light so many times and in so many different ways that small acts of kindness take on a far more powerful role than we could have ever imagined. Just consider the story of Marie-Laure’s uncle and the way he finally found healing in his niece. This was such a beautiful story right in itself. And I loved that her father was such a kind, good man, and so determined to have his daughter independent despite her blindness. Lovely, lovely characters.
All the Light We Cannot See is primarily a tale about morality, compassion, and responsibility, of family and what makes us human, but also of second chances. That horrible things happen to innocent and evil alike in war is not the point – the point is whether people let fear take over and let the horrors unfold unchecked, or do they stand true to their convictions and retain their humanity.
The only thing in this book that I didn’t like as much was the drawn-out ending. It would have been ok to wrap things up in just a few paragraphs; we did not need another chapter set years after the war. It is still one of my favourite books and the writing is pure magic.