Author: Anthony Doerr
To give you some perspective, understand that I do not read a lot of historical fiction. So when I say this book is amazingly good, that should tell you something.
Don’t let the Pulitzer Prize win make you think this is a stuffy read – All the Light We Cannot See is an astoundingly accessible WWII story that grants humanity to all parties involved. It’s not a Holocaust novel, instead focusing on the invasion of France and Russia coupled with the indoctrination of German youth. It acknowledges the horrors of war without presenting anything that would be inappropriate for a young adult audience; if you’re introducing kids to Elie Wiesel’s Night then they can absolutely handle this. The hefty 544 page count may seem daunting, but chapters are rarely longer than four or five pages, which I imagine would lend itself well to an ebook or audio format in addition to traditional print.
All of the threads woven in All the Light come together in Saint-Malo, a walled city on the coast of France (and the cover of the book) that was devastated by American and British bombing and gunfire in August and September 1944. The book opens with the beginning of the American assault and how it affects a blind French girl and a young German soldier stationed in the city. We then jump back a decade to see how each of their paths began. And before you get worried, I personally found the time jumps extremely easy to follow, and I usually totally stink at that.
Six-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc loves accompanying her father to his work at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When her poor eyesight progresses to full blindness, he refuses to let her life be limited. He builds a wooden model of their neighborhood and teaches her to navigate using it, gets her braille novels, and introduces her to his museum colleagues, all of which infect her with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the natural world.
Marie and her father are forced to flee Paris following the 1940 Nazi invasion, taking refuge with her great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. A reclusive, shell-shocked WWI veteran, Etienne and his housekeeper Madame Manec become family to Marie when her father disappears after attempting to return to Paris on secretive Museum business. Marie’s chapters of All the Light largely center on her life in Saint-Malo, including the eventual Nazi occupation, a modicum of healing for Etienne, and Madame Manec’s resistance efforts.
We meet Werner as a six-year-old German orphan growing up in a mining town with no hope of a better life. When he finds a broken radio and sets to tinkering with it, Werner unlocks a technological acumen that lands him a coveted spot in an elite military academy. Life there is brutal, breaking more than one boy, but Werner finds solace in his work with the electronics professor as they develop a system to effectively track the origin of radio signals.
Werner’s chief struggle revolves around how to discern truth and make decisions about what is right and wrong based on that. As a child, he and sister Jutta overheard illegal foreign radio broadcasts claiming Germany is committing atrocities, a story at stark odds with what is presented to them every day. Even after Werner leaves for school, Jutta serves as the steadfast moral voice for the whole book; her refusal to swallow Nazi propaganda highlights Werner’s internal struggle as he is immersed in that world. This comes into sharp focus when the mathematics and theoretical science of his radio tracking work turn into a devastating tool that ends lives.
“Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?
All of the disparate threads culminate in the bombing of Saint-Malo, which is revealed slowly throughout the book. There’s also a third sub-plot that introduces a touch of magical realism involving the widespread theft and subsequent hoarding of art by the Nazis, but I think that story is best left discovered as you read. By no means does it turn this into a fantasy book, but it does allow for themes of greed and belief to come into play.
I would recommend All the Light We Cannot See for absolutely anyone. I thought Werner’s character presented a balanced, realistic look at how a German citizen could possibly go along with the Nazi regime. The military was his ticket out of the mining town – a job that essentially carried a death sentence – and he encounters both fanatics and doubters among his classmates. Werner himself struggles to understand where his actions place him on the scale of Good to Evil – is he complicit? A pawn? A silent resister? I thought he was a believable depiction of someone out of their depth as part of a bigger plan.
For Marie’s part, she represents hesitation on the other side. Her blindness and isolation in Saint-Malo render her an air of innocence, but she ultimately has to decide whether to take the risk of resisting or hope to ride out the war unnoticed. From both the German and French sides, All the Light We Cannot See forces readers to question how we perceive truth and what we do in light of it. In the end, we can only decide our own actions, but the weight of how they might help or harm someone else is not something this book takes lightly, and neither should we.