Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre: Fiction > Historical Fiction
Synopsis: Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris within walking distance of the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of the locks (there are thousands of locks in the museum). When she is six, she goes blind, and her father builds her a model of their neighborhood, every house, every manhole, so she can memorize it with her fingers and navigate the real streets with her feet and cane. When the Germans occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, where Marie-Laure’s agoraphobic great uncle lives in a tall, narrow house by the sea wall.
In another world in Germany, an orphan boy, Werner, grows up with his younger sister, Jutta, both enchanted by a crude radio Werner finds. He becomes a master at building and fixing radios, a talent that wins him a place at an elite and brutal military academy and, ultimately, makes him a highly specialized tracker of the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Hitler Youth to the far-flung outskirts of Russia, and finally into Saint-Malo, where his path converges with Marie-Laure.
Final Rating: ★★★★☆
Buy this book on the Book Depository
Goodreads Page for this Book
I’ve had my eye on this book for the longest time. I had heard nothing but fantastic things about it. Some of my favorite people on the book blogging community had said that Anthony Doerr’s writing is poetic, that the characters were fantastic, that the story was lyrical and heart-breakingly beautiful. I managed to get a free copy from – guess who – Neil Gaiman, himself, when he came to New York with Daniel Handler and gave away some of the finalist novels for the National Book Award. So, after a long wait, I finally got around to reading it.
I thought the book was unnecessarily lengthy. I enjoyed the plot, and I absolutely adored the characters. I thought the writing was very beautiful, but there were some parts that I felt didn’t need to be there. However, the book was a good read over all, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone who’s interested in historical fiction.
The book is divided into several different sections. We have the story from mainly three different characters point of views- Werner, a German mathematical genius in the Hitler’s youth, Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living with her uncle during the war, and a German sergeant major after something called the Sea of Flames. On top of that, the story takes place in different times. It starts off in 1944, and we see glimpses of each of the characters’ lives. Then, it goes back to 1938, flickers back to 1944, goes back to 1939, and so on until we have a complete picture of how the characters got to where they are in 1944. I thought that was very clever, and it was wonderfully done.
However, I was a little bugged by how little happened in the 1944-timeline towards the beginning, and middle of the novel. It felt like Doerr was just trying to build suspense or fill up the pages with meaningless detail. I would be engrossed in the story, the novel would jump forward to 1944, and nothing would really happen. It put me in a massive reading slump.
There were certain parts that I really enjoyed, though. Marie-Laure’s integration to life with her uncle was a pleasure to read. I thought that Doerr’s ability to utilize other senses – touch, taste, sound and smell – in a novel where one of the protagonists is blind was wonderful. It made me realize how many times authors tend to completely depend on sight, forgetting our other senses. The imagery was vivid even though the character couldn’t see anything. That really impressed me.
Werner’s integration into his school was fascinating. I really enjoyed how richly Doerr described the various activities in the school, Werner’s relationship with his professors and his peers, and the experiences Werner carried with him throughout the book.
The convergence of the characters was brilliantly done. But I do wish that we had gotten to see a little more of it.
The characters are the strongest part of the novel. I have this thing that if a novel is weak, but the characters are strong, I don’t mind it much. If the plot is amazing, and the characters are bland, I wouldn’t like the book one bit. I could tell that Doerr put a massive amount of time thinking about his characters. He crafted their personalities, their hobbies, their actions and reactions, their movements with the utmost precision. I was completely invested in their stories. They felt real. They were multi-dimensional, and far, FAR from perfect, but that’s what made them so special.
Werner is probably one of my favorite characters ever. I think he was so nuanced and flawed, yet so lovable. I really enjoyed how much detail Doerr put into Werner’s passion for mathematics. I really respected and admired Werner’s overpowering love for his sister. It was incredibly moving and astonishing to read from the perspective of a young child from the Hitler Youth. Werner feels compelled to obey, to do what he’s asked to do because he wants a better life for himself and his sister. As a child, he doesn’t understand the vast consequences of Nazism but he does what he does out of love. Doerr does a great job of making sure that nothing he writes or depicts is black-and-white. Giving a face to the monster we have all grown to hate makes you stand in the shoes of someone who was living the experience. We’ve all been taught to hate the Nazis- rightly so. But would you hate a child who did what he did just to protect his kid sister? Like Doerr says, “everyone [is] trapped in their own roles.” It’s very complex, very nuanced and I really loved it.
Frederick, a friend of Werner’s, is also someone I really adored. The complete opposite of the “hero” figure, he is – in fact – the one person that Werner, unassumingly, is inspired by. Usually in books, the helpless, geeky character is protected by our hero. But not in this case. Frederick, in some ways, is the hero that Werner never was, and never will be. I thought it was refreshing and wonderful.
Like I said before, the main problem I had with the novel was that it was unnecessarily lengthy. I think this has to do with Anthony Doerr’s writing style. I think he embellishes a lot, and it does add a vivid ambience to the novel, but it also put me in a massive reading slump. I should have finished this book in four days, max, but it took me over a week to get through it, because it was just dragging. I thought the pacing was a problem. I thought Doerr uses too much description, when it’s not really needed.
Would I re-read? No, it was just too long, and sometimes, too slow.
Would I recommend? Yes.