Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publication Date: May 2014
Genre(s): Historical fiction
At dusk they pour from the sky.
Marie-Laure goes blind when she is just six years old. Her papa, the locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, builds her an exact replica of their city for her to memorize in order to get around in the real world. For years, Marie-Laure’s world consists only of Paris – her flat to the museum and back again. But that all changes when Paris is invaded by the Germans, and Marie-Laure and her papa must escape to Saint-Malo to live with Marie’s great-uncle Etienne. But is anywhere in France really safe during the 1940s? Soon Marie-Laure is all alone – her papa is gone, Etienne is gone, and her vision, well, that’s been gone for years. On August 09, 1944, all Marie-Laure has left is a book and the one thing that might save her: a radio.
Werner Pfennig is an orphan living in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex outside Essen, Germany. He is raised at the Children’s House with his sister Jutta under the supervision of Frau Elena. Werner is the spitting image of what Hitler is looking for: blue eyes, hair so blond it looks as white as snow. And he’s smart, too – Werner becomes the go-to for radio repair in Zollverein, which is how Rudolf Siedler finds him. When Werner fixes Siedler’s radio after two other experts could not, Siedler decides to give Werner a chance. Instead of being forced into the coal mines that killed his father, Werner takes and passes the exams that gets him into the National Political Institute of Education. There, he is trained to fight for Hitler’s regime. But over the years, his sister’s words continually echo through his mind: “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” On August 09, 1944, Werner finally has his answer to that question.
So I tried to give as much synopsis to the book as I could without giving too much away. I went into this book mostly blind (pun not intended) because most of the synopses were not very detailed. Sometimes I like that, sometimes I don’t. I like to be informed. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but anything about WWII fascinates me, so I guess you could say I’m a fan of WWII historical fiction, or Holocaust fiction. All the Light We Cannot See astounded me in ways I never expected when I bought it on a whim one day during one of my book store sprees. This was also the same day I bought The Martian, which I read a long time ago, so you can see how long this gem was just sitting on my shelf. I suppose the length was a little daunting (530 pages) because I’m always afraid to start longer books during the school year in fear that I’ll get too distracted with my coursework to ever finish it, hence why I read it in the summer. I blew through it in only a couple days. It would have taken less time if I had not had to work. I absolutely love the idea of this novel. It is told in third-person omniscient and mainly focuses on the two characters mentioned above: Marie-Laure and Werner. The structure of the novel is a little weird, and at first it deterred me, but I came to love it. There are thirteen parts (well, fourteen, since the first one is actually called Zero), each containing very short snippet chapters, alternating between Marie-Laure and Werner, during a certain year. The novel jumps back and forth in time, first focusing on the climax of the novel during August 1944, then jumping back to 1934, then again to 1944, then back to 1940, and so on. It’s a little weird at first because it’s not chronological at all, and the events in 1944 are so much more climactic than the rest of the novel, so all you want to do race through and figure out how Marie-Laure and Werner get to where they end up. It’s definitely a heart-pounding read.
Marie-Laure is definitely a heroine to look up to. The things she goes through during this novel are enough to break my heart, and she’s not even real. Or is she? The sad thing about this novel is that it feels so real, and certainly there must have been people that experienced things similarly to Marie-Laure during WWII. But she is a fighter, that’s for sure. She didn’t give up when she went blind, nor when she lost everyone and was alone in a burning city she couldn’t even see. At one point in the novel, someone says she is brave, to which she replies, “But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
Werner also has a place in my heart, maybe even a bigger one than Marie-Laure. If I could give away spoilers and rant for an hour about Werner, I would. God knows I want to, because I literally do not have anyone to talk to about this book, but I am firmly against spoiling things. You know, I really appreciate what Anthony Doerr has done with All the Light We Cannot See. He has given us Werner, an extremely sympathetic character who we fall in love with over the course of these hundreds of pages, and yet we’ve been raised to hate who he is. He is a German boy who fights for Hitler during WWII. But how could you hate Werner? How could you hate this genius of an orphan whose only options in life are to work in the coal mines – the exact coal mines that killed his father – or go to school and work his mind and do the things he loves, even if that means fighting in Hitler’s army? Werner doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He doesn’t want to do the wrong thing. He doesn’t even know what the wrong thing is. I don’t think we ever think about that. Every side in war believes they are the good side. Werner grows up in Germany – he is a German. What choice does he have to align himself with the Germans, especially in the 1940s? Here in America, we fight wars all the time, and we do so believing that we are the good guys. But to certain people, we are not the good guys. It’s all very subjective and it’s all about where you grow up. I think Werner is a really good kid who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think Doerr in a genius for writing about a girl from France and a boy from Germany, and making both very sympathetic, heroic characters.
I also want to mention how much I loved Marie-Laure’s papa. I would like to rant about his character too, but I cannot without spoiling anything. So I’ll just say that I was rooting for him throughout the whole novel. And Etienne was a great character, too. I didn’t like him at first, but he really came through in the end for Marie-Laure. Ah, and last but not least, Frederick. I don’t know how, but my heart ached for him harder than anyone in this novel. Perhaps because he was one of the dreamers. But I loved him and his story made me sick to my stomach. The characters in this novel are so real, so tragic, it kills me. But I love it.
My first novel by Anthony Doerr leaves me hungering for more. Like I said, I didn’t expect much from All the Light We Cannot See, but it blew those expectations out of the water. I loved this book, especially the last 200 or so pages. Though the characters are young, I do not believe this is a YA novel at all – it read more like an adult novel, to me. But the genre doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the plot was interesting, the characters were realistic, and the writing was flawless. So many times I found myself angry or sad or exasperated with the book. That’s how you know it’s good. I said “WHAT!?” out loud at least ten times. After I read the last page, I sat and cried and felt more alone than I’d felt when I started the novel a few days ago. It’s a powerful story, and I need to find someone who’s willing to read it and pawn it off on them so I can talk to them. That’s how good it is.
Favorite Quote(s): “We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”
“Who knew love could kill you?”
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
“If only life were like a Jules Verne novel … and you could page ahead when you most needed to, and learn what would happen.”