This is a review I wrote for ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr. I have a feeling my thoughts may not concur with those of the majority. Now, don’t misunderstand me, it’s a beautiful book. I appreciate that. There are (large) parts of it that will stay with me for a long time. As literary fiction goes, it really is fantastic. Okay. That’s my disclaimer. (Also, there are SPOILERS.)
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I want to start this review with my positive thoughts about this book. There are many. Most importantly, though, is the writing itself. Doerr writes beautiful, intrinsic words that draw the reader into the world of World War II Germany and France. The language is rich, sumptuous, and his use of all five senses creates an immersive reading experience that left me, in turns, sighing, laughing, and despairing. It’s beautifully written. I can imagine Doerr would write incredible poetry.
In terms of plot, it’s hard to know where to start. There are so many mini stories taking place inside the parallel stories of Marie-Laure and Werner. Maybe it’s easier to start with the themes, as I saw them. There is a lot of good versus evil, and how the lines between the two, and reasons for the two, can become blurred in extreme circumstances. It’s clever how Marie-Laure and Werner are the “good” characters, and also they are the people who see the world for what it really is. Maybe that is because they listen.
This is another theme: people are capable of ignoring the most heinous acts in order to survive. They look away (like the boys at Schulpforta when Frederick is beaten almost to death). In this instance, it also shows how the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party became so strong. I felt sick at how easily, and quickly, these ordinary boys turned into monsters who revelled in causing pain. It seemed similar to brainwashing them. I found it frightening. I had never thought about it before. The things I learned about World War II at school didn’t include the question: why did young men become Nazis? Etienne says at one point, “We all do what we must to survive,” and I think that’s an important aspect of this book. During unimaginable circumstances such as war, we, none of us, know what we would do.
Bravery is another theme. Marie-Laure is a wonderful character. Astute, intelligent, brave. Anthony Doerr did a fantastic job with putting me in Marie-Laure’s shoes. I got lost in the fear of being unable to see. Her trips to collect the bread, her encounters with Von Rumpel, her father leaving her. My heart went out to her when he left. I wanted so badly for him to stay. I never really understood why he did go. My heart was in my mouth when she and her father were fleeing Paris. It felt so frightening: to not know what was going on around her. Only that it was dangerous. To not be able to see where you are running; knowing only that you are running away from everything that is familiar to you.
Madame Manec is also a brave character. When we first meet her, she appears to be a little, old housekeeper. Nothing more. When she forms a division of the French Resistance with other housewives, I wanted to cheer. If it wasn’t for courageous women like her, maybe the war wouldn’t have ended when it did. I love Madame Manec’s boiling frog analogy as well. She says that a frog that is dropped into a pot of boiling water will jump straight back out again. But if you place the frog in cold water and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog will not realise what is happening, and will boil with it. Etienne, later, asks Marie-Laure whether she thinks Madame was speaking about herself of the Germans. Which is interesting because I thought she was speaking about Etienne. But all three explanations make sense. It’s this idea that people are brainwashed without realising it’s happening to them, and that they all follow the herd.
At the heart of the story is the myth of the Sea of Flames diamond. This is a stone that, reportedly, keeps whoever owns it from dying; whilst wreaking havoc and pain on that person’s loved ones. We learn about the stone and the myth (or curse) early in the novel, and the tale that builds surrounding it tells the reader it will have great significance. Which it does, as it links everything together. It is Daniel Le Blanc’s job to protect this, and he and Marie-Laure flee with it in their possession. It’s the reason Von Rumpel comes to Saint Malo, and Marie-Laure hides in the attic. She, in turn, transmits the radio programme because she is hiding there, and Werner and Volkheimer hear her, and break free from where they are trapped. She gives them hope, and it’s all because Von Rumpel is searching for the diamond in the rooms below her.
All the time, Marie-Laure believes the stone to be cursed, and in the end, before being rescued, she throws it away. She doesn’t want it, and neither does Werner. They are good people, they aren’t filled with greed and material desire, so they don’t want this stone. At the end of the book, I thought Werner had gone back for the stone, so I thought he would be all right (yes, I believed in the curse). So when he died, because of the manner in which he died, it actually winded me. I had to put the book down, and recover. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a strong physical reaction before when reading.
The characters are what makes this book so memorable for me. Along with Marie-Laure and Werner, there is Etienne, Madame Manec, Volkheimer, Jutta, Frau Elena, Frederick, Von Rumpel, Daniel. Each person has a unique story, and every one is interwoven with the others. It’s so clever. Meticulous planning must have gone into this book. I love that it is Marie-Laure’s grandfather’s voice whom Werner and Jutta listen to on their first wireless as children. For Werner to rescue this man’s granddaughter, and see where he made the recordings is a stroke of brilliance. Marie-Laure and Werner spend a day together, but it changes both of their lives forever. In the grand scheme of things, their meeting is tiny. But it symbolises something much bigger: people who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in, and who do the right thing.
Werner is such an endearing character. He is like the conscience of the Nazi Party. He is uneasy with the game, where the weakest class member is hunted by the others, then beaten when caught. This part particularly sickened me. The teachers treated the children as a pack of hunting animals. Which is what they were training to be, I guess. Frederick touched my heart as well. He refused to throw the water at the prisoner. He refused to behave as an animal. But he paid a high price for his morals. The brutality of war hits the reader in the face. It sticks with you once you’ve finished reading, as well. I think it will stick with me for a long time.
The relationship between Marie-Laure and Etienne is beautifully written. They help each other, and, in turn, the rest of the world. Etienne overcomes his agoraphobia thanks to Marie-Laure, and she survives her father’s imprisonment thanks to him. I was so happy when, at the end of the novel, they were reunited.
Volkheimer: I love how he is feared by the younger students because of his giant size. But he has the softest heart. His relationship with Werner is lovely to read. They really look out for each other, and Volkheimer is really fond of Werner. I love how he delivers Werner’s belongings to Jutta years later.
So those are the things I love about the book. The things I struggled with a little . . . all the descriptions of radios and how they work. All the science speak. It’s not a language I will ever understand, no matter how simply it is explained. I get that it’s a crucial part of the book. But I did switch off in these sections. And there were a lot.
The prose. Now, I think I will be on my own in feeling this. Yes, the prose is beautiful. Doerr has an incredible talent. But sometimes, it felt like too much. There is so much description on every page. I really had to concentrate. I felt I was picking my way the words at times; they seemed a little dense. I felt the book could have been shorter, had he cut some of the description (and some of the radio speak). I didn’t think it was always necessary. But that’s my personal taste. I usually read books that are fast paced and have a lot of action.
That’s it for my negatives. So the last thing I want to cover is the title: “All The Light We Cannot See.” At first, I thought it referred to the use of sound as a medium for navigating the world for Marie-Laure and Werner. I thought of millions of of radio waves rushing around the world, some of them crossing paths; albeit briefly. That’s what this book is about.
I read a quote from Anthony Doerr, where he is discussing the title, and he says, “Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focussed on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.” Perhaps, this is a reference to the visible spectrum, and the fact that humans can only see a small percentage of it. But what is really interesting is what goes on underneath this spectrum (the light we cannot see). The millions of paths that cross, and stories that occur whilst under the radar. Just as Madame Manec formed a group of Resistance Women, and Etienne broadcast illegally. It’s an interesting thought, and it ties together my understanding of the novel nicely.
One final thing: for many, many years I have graded every book I read with marks out of ten (including half marks; quarter marks in exceptional circumstances), so I thought I’d do that for this one. I give it eight out of ten.