Recent Reads: “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See cover

All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Historical Fiction

Synopsis:

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.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Rating: 5 / 5

If you’ve read my book reviews before, you know I rarely give perfect grades. Even if I love a novel, I usually feel uncertain about some part of the story. Then I read Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. Wow. Even days after I finished reading, that’s the best word I can use to describe it: an awestruck, soul-stirred “Wow.” I’ll do my best to summarize my observations and feelings as concisely as I can – because not only did I love this book from the first page to the last, but I also couldn’t find anything I’d do differently.

All The Light We Cannot See illustrates the lives of the blind French girl Marie-Laure and the German orphan Werner as they grow up on different sides of the trenches of World War II. Each scene switches between Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s point of view, with a couple other stragetic perspectives that raise the stakes for both protagonists. In addition, each part (or large chunks of scenes) switches between the present (Germany’s bombing of Saint-Malo in August 1944) and specified years in Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s childhoods. All of the flashbacks are crucial in allowing the readers to bond with the characters, and important in showing how the story culminates during those fateful days in Saint-Malo.

Speaking of character-reader relationships in All The Light We Cannot See: I can’t think of a single character I didn’t bond with. I adore Marie-Laure for her bravery, curiosity, and astuteness, and Werner for his impassioned intelligence and his desire to hang onto his goodness despite the terrible cause he’s part of. Then there’s peculiar Uncle Etienne, whose fierce love and engineering know-how protect Marie-Laure; Madame Manec, whose canned peaches are to die for and small-scale rebellion against the Nazis makes you cheer; Volkheimer, the gentle war “giant” in constant awe of Werner’s engineering genius; Frederick, a budding expert on birds and a tragic example of what happens when a Hitler Youth swims against the tide; and Werner’s little sister Jutta, who’s bright like her brother and perhaps more aware of the dangers he’ll face in the war. I could go on, but the point is that all of Doerr’s characters seem so real, it’s impossible to not fall in love with them.

Now, Doerr’s writing style. If an ocean somewhere ebbed and flowed with his descriptions and sentences, I’d wade in it all day. That’s how evocative and powerful Doerr’s writing is – and he doesn’t write in that manner for beauty’s sake. His word choices, vivid verbs, and inventive metaphors fit every scene where they appear and dig right into the heart of each character. They set your heart a-pounding during the raid on Saint-Malo. They steal your breath when Marie-Laure explores beaches and grottos and when Werner listens to French science lesson broadcasts on his radio. They swell in your throat as both children learn of the horrors of their world, both everyday and due to the war. Somewhere around Page 50, I started keeping a journal of the words and phrases that leapt out at me. I couldn’t tell you the last time a novel inspired me to do that – which speaks volumes about Doerr’s technique.

Lastly, I’m floored by the amount of research Doerr must have done for All The Light We Cannot See. Not just about WWII-era France and Germany, but about seemingly small details such as mollusks, radios, blindness, birds, gemstones. These details add richness and vibrancy to the story, draw you closer to the characters, and ensnare your heart so it’s fully invested in the outcome. This book had me in a constant state of admiration and wonder; I couldn’t help but marvel at the time and painstaking effort Doerr must have spent on completing his manuscript and ensuring the accuracy of even the tiniest facts.

I may read mostly fantasy, but when I read any book I always look for a compelling story, believable characters, and a fluid writing style. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a stunning example of all three elements. It’s so well written, and so urgent and successful in convincing you to read another scene, then another, and another, until you lose all track of time. It’s also a prime example of the power of words on a reader. It makes you laugh, cry, hold your breath, bite your fingernails. Most of all, it shows us the impact of life-changing choices that must be made in seconds, and the uncanny ability some people have to see the light – be it compassion, beauty, or potential – in darkened hours and places when others cannot.

Have you read All The Light We Cannot See? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.

18 thoughts on “Recent Reads: “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

  1. Wow, this novel sounds amazing! I don’t give a “perfect grade” for very many books, either, so I know how awesome it is to find one that deserves it. I feel like my partner would really enjoy the book as well, since he’s a huge history buff 🙂 I’m actually considering getting him this for Christmas…thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Molly! I kept thinking of things I wanted to say about this book, just because I loved everything about it. Let me know what you think if you end up reading it!

      I think it’s a good idea to read outside one’s preferred genre every now and then. You never know how it may affect you or what universal ideas you (if you’re a writer) can bring into your own work. I actually started reading historical fiction years before I started reading fantasy (thanks to Scott O’Dell’s Native American stories and the American Girl franchise), so it has a special place in my heart.

      Like

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  3. Your blog is a treasure trove and I have just subscribed to it! I love historical fiction and this one seems very interesting, thanks to your wonderful review. I am adding it to my to-read list for this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. I’m very touched that you’ve enjoyed what you found so far, Zephyr. All The Light We Cannot See was my favorite read of 2014, so I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

      I read mostly fantasy, but I can confirm I’ll have another historical fiction book review next week. 😉 I hope you’ll stop by again!

      Like

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