All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

By Ekta R. Garg

May 21, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young woman tries to deal with the onslaught of German soldiers in her city, despite her blindness. A young man tries to reconcile his morals with the demands of Hitler’s armed forces. Both cross paths in the most unbelievable and heartbreaking of ways in Anthony Doerr’s touching novel All the Light We Cannot See.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives with her Great Uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo, France. At the age of 16, she has lived with blindness for a decade but navigates Saint-Malo like a seeing person thanks to her father. A lock master at the Museum of Natural History, her father built her a model of Saint-Malo and taught Marie-Laure to familiarize herself with the town just before disappearing. Now Marie-Laure must learn to accept his disappearance and take care of her great uncle.

But taking care of anyone has become a challenge. The French face the Germans in the heat of World War II, and the relentless, ruthless methods the Germans employ almost guarantee their victory. Life’s simplest pleasures have become its greatest dangers.

Not far away Werner Pfennig awaits orders. The army tapped him for his extraordinary intelligence and capacity with electronics, but Werner can’t forget his upbringing. Although he and his younger sister, Jutta, spent most of their childhood in an orphanage, the woman running the home always treated all of the children with love and encouragement. When a member of the military identifies Werner’s talent, he wonders whether joining the Hitler Youth will benefit him.

Jutta doesn’t wonder. She and Werner have spent their nights listening in secret to radio programs from other cities, and Jutta has heard what people outside of Germany call the Nazis. She knows that the heavily-skewed propaganda on government radio shows doesn’t give nearly the whole story. Werner dithers but eventually joins the Hitler Youth; more than anything he wants to learn about electronics and other engineering subjects, and getting into the military gives him the ticket to his educational freedom. Little does he know how much of a prisoner he will become in other ways.

As Marie-Laure and Werner live through the early years of the war and then face its darkest hours, they begin to understand just how low mankind can sink. When they finally come face to face, it will offer both of them the chance to make some of the most difficult choices of their lives. But they also learn how kindness can appear when a person least expects it—like a burst of light after spending years in the dark.

Author Anthony Doerr spent 10 years working on this novel, and clearly he spent his time researching information about Saint-Malo and what it represented in the war. Some writers could end up drowning their readers in historical facts, but Doerr blends those facts with prose that will keep readers awake at night. Many reviewers have already “blamed” Doerr for sleepless nights, and he fully justifies the accusation.

Readers will worry about Marie-Laure and hold their breaths as she works her way around the situations of the war. They will follow Werner from the orphanage into the Hitler Youth and agonize with him over his internal struggle. More than anything, however, readers will come to appreciate Doerr’s handling of language and will want to turn back to the first page after finishing the last.

All the Light We Cannot See has everything readers love in a sumptuous historical novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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