Book Review | All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I think I must be the last person I know to read All the Light We Cannot See, and I admit I’m kicking myself that I took so long. It’s easily one of the most moving books I’ve read in recent memory.

That said, I feel like it was also one of the most effortlessly painful books I’ve read in a while. There are novels that are difficult to read because they demand more fo the reader (Turn of the Screw comes to mind, but I think it’s mostly just dry…Crime and Punishment is probably closer to what I mean), but it isn’t a level of technical difficulty that I am talking about. Rather it’s the emotional demands that Anthony Doerr’s historical novel, set in parts of Germany and France during World War II, that was difficult for me. Almost from the beginning, it was obvious to me that no one was coming out of this story unscarred–if at all–and the tragedy permeated every page.
(And let’s be honest, there are times I have the emotional range of a teaspoon. There’s a reason my first response to an impassioned and tear-stained story from one of my girls is “so, go take care of it like this…” followed by more tears… “Oh, you want empathy? Okay, let me see if I remember how to do that…” I just don’t default to an empathetic response, though maybe that would make me a better person. But I digress.)

All the Light We Cannot See is largely set during the years just before and then during World War II. From the beginning, the lives of Doerr’s protagonists are heavily laced with the tragic. Werner is the rare genius orphan destined for the mines that fuel and arm the Wehrmacht in its march across Europe and into the Soviet Union. His life is to be nasty, brutish, and short, and even when chance provides him an opportunity to escape and pursue his dreams of scientific inquiry, it is only at the hands of the thuggish Nazis, as concerned with his hair and eye color as his natural genius as long as it serves the war’s purpose.

Meanwhile, Marie-Laure, the daughter of the Keeper of the Keys at a French museum, is half-orphaned and struck blind in childhood. Forced to rediscover the streets of her hometown, her father painstakingly and patiently fills the void in her life left by her mother’s death and her lost sight. She is beloved by the staff and scientists of the museum, adopted by all as she grows, relearns to read using Braille, and adapts to her surroundings.

And then the war comes.

Doerr brings his protagonists closer and closer, and as the world seems to slough off its humanity and take on monstrous proportions, we see individuals both heroic and villainous, and yet, they all seem familiar, human, agents of their own future, even as the monstrous leviathan of the Nazi war machine seems to push them to terrible conclusions. One of my favorite parts of how Doerr writes is in his almost effortless use of metaphor to make everything echo beyond the present, to resonate. Persons long dead are our neighbors, our family, our friends…or us.

I loved this book. It hurt to read, but it was beautiful in what it showed me about myself, or at least what I hope I and my fellow humans might be at our very best, even when all around is at its very worst.

All the Light We Cannot See Book Cover All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Historical Fiction
May 6, 2014

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.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.