Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book: All the light we cannot seeAll The Light We Cannot See follows the stories of Marie-Laure (a blind Parisian girl) and Werner (a German orphan) during the Second World War. It is poetic in style and epic in scope. Each chapter gives us an impression, a short glimpse into another world, often just one or two pages long, brimming with poignant images. It begins in 1944, then moves back ten years and gradually fills in the gaps, leading up to the moment when the lives of these two characters will intersect.   

Marie-Laure’s father is principal locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. He guards the most valuable object in the museum, the Sea of Flames (a magnificent diamond with a magical secret). He has created a miniature model of the Parisian neighbourhood in which they live, in order to help her find her way around, and there are some beautiful descriptions of their close relationship:

“At home, in the evenings, her father stows their shoes in the same cubby, hangs their coats on the same hooks. Marie-Laure crosses six evenly spaced friction strips on the kitchen tiles to reach the table; she follows a strand of twine he has threaded from the table to the toilet…”

Werner, on the other hand, is brought up, together with his younger sister Jutta, in ‘Children’s House’, a place of obscurity and poverty. Yet he has an insatiable desire for knowledge and loves playing with technology. He finds an abandoned radio, discovers a way to mend it and is mesmerised by the myriad of voices that come to life, especially the calm, authoritative voice of a man who opens up a world of scientific mysteries.

Eventually Werner’s technological abilities lead him into a future vastly different from the coal mining job which killed his father. His skills take him all the way to a cadet training school with the Hitler Youth – a place of instruction in the art of war, a place where the young are trained to become strong and unwavering in their determination to move forward, whatever the cost.

It is here that Werner meets Frederick, a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it is here that he begins to realise what he is capable of, and just how far he is willing to go, to secure his own place in the world.

Meanwhile Marie-Laure must escape Paris with her father, carrying the precious Sea of Flames out of danger. They end up in Saint-Malo, a coastal city, where her Great Uncle Etienne lives in a tall house full of radios, books and memories, afraid of the ghosts he sees all around him, unable to venture outside.

It is much later in the story when Werner begins to realise that he has a choice, that in fact he always had a choice, he was too afraid to acknowledge it before. It comes too late, and he is forced to confront the reality of what his own actions can accomplish. Eventually it is an echo of that kindly voice from his childhood, which helps him, at last, to make a decision and risk his own life to protect another.

I love the style of writing in this book, almost like a series of prose poems, each one carefully crafted to create a certain atmosphere. One section which really stood out was the chapter entitled ‘The Simultaneity of Instants’, a kind of objective observation of all the things which take place all over Europe at the same time, whilst our two main characters wait for the crux of the book – the moment when they will meet.

The story builds gradually, piece by piece, moving back and forth through time. It seems to draw near to the end on several occasions, and yet it keeps going, all the way into the 1970s. I am still unsure whether I liked this way of ending or not. I think in some ways I’d have preferred not to know what happened next, rather like in life one might prefer not to know the date of one’s death until it happens. But this ending does create a sense of reality, a sense of completeness, as the world attempts to unravel the mysteries created by the war, to put objects back into their proper places, to make things right again, although they never can go back to how they were before.

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