I’ve already decided that All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of my favorite WWII books so far. It’s so beautifully written with so many layers. I could read it a hundred times and come up with a new thought or idea each time.
The book starts with the bombing of Saint-Malo in Brittany France by the Allies. Our main character, Marie-Laure LeBlanc—a 16-year-old blind French girl—is there, alone, in her six-story home when it happens. Before all this happens, however, Marie-Laure, was living with her father in Paris. He was the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History and she was gradually losing her sight.
Once the Germans invade, Daniel, Marie-Laure’s father, takes his daughter and something else—something valuable entrusted to him by the director of the museum—and flees to Saint-Malo where his uncle lives.
At the same time in Germany our other protagonist, Werner Pfennig, lives in an orphanage in Zollverein with his sister Juta. At the beginning of the war he’s about 12 (a year or two older than Marie-Laure), and has only a life in the coal mines in which to look forward (despite the fact that his father died in one). He also happens to be brilliant in math and science.
It’s this brilliance that saves his from the coal mines, though it damns him in other ways. He wins a spot in a Nazi school where his superior officers take advantage of his innate talent in building and repairing radios; it’ll be used for dark purposes during the war. Whether for good or ill, however, Werner’s new path leads him to Marie-Laure, a girl who changes—maybe even saves—his life. As he saves her.
Whether or not Saint-Malo should have been bombed—as the last port city held by the Axis—isn’t the point of this review. And it wasn’t the point of the book. I’m not judging those military decisions. The facts are that the Allies believed there were more Germans in the city than there were; they warned the citizens to evacuate before the attack; and the Germans locked the gates so that the people couldn’t escape. Now, moving on:
The Characters. The character building was fantastic. They were complex and rich and life-like. Marie-Laure was blind, true enough, but she wasn’t helpless. She learned to move from place to place by counting steps; she learned to use her other senses to see not only those surface things, but the deeper things that people mostly ignore like goodness and intentions. She demonstrated extraordinary courage and calm during the bombing, taking deliberate measures to keep herself alive until she could get out of the city.
Werner, on the other hand, is deeply flawed, though not in the usual way. He wasn’t evil or a fanatic or overly ambitious. He just wanted to escape the life of a coal miner, and to do that, he sacrificed a bit of his soul. He didn’t partake in the deprivations that the Nazis inflicted on people as much as allowed them to happen. But it was meeting Marie-Laure that changed him, that made him do the right thing.
The supporting cast was nearly as well-rounded as the heroine and hero. Marie-Laure’s great-uncle Etienne was odd and eclectic and interesting; Madame Manec was surprisingly fierce; Juta was surprisingly wise; Frank Volkheimer, Werner’s friend and commanding officer, had a soft spot.
The Storyline. The storyline was nearly as impressive as the characters. Although the book started with the bombing of Saint-Malo, it went back to the beginning for both Marie-Laure and Werner. We learned their back story while intermittently, their lives in real time—after the bombing—marched on. So the book flipped from 1944 to 1940, forward to 1944 then back to 1941, and so on. Which could be—admittedly—confusing if a person read the book slowly over time instead of all at once. But the effect was amazing and entrancing.
The Writing. Can a person sing a book’s praises too much or the writer’s work to intensely? I hope not, because I plan on doing that. The writing was complex with, like I said, layers of meaning and themes. For instance, all the light we cannot see is a running theme, an idea that there’s more to light or truth than what we can physically see; that light is almost a tangible essence that lifts us up. Indeed, there’s light all around that can make us our better selves if we let it. It’s a light that Marie-Laure, blind as she was, could see, while Werner, with all this brilliance and knowledge, was blind to until the very end:
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Like all the best WWII books, this one details not the minutiae of the war, but the beating of individual hearts; it describes what people experienced and suffered and—maybe more importantly—overcame. Because while we often see war as the worst of humanity, it often produces the best in ourselves. If we let it.