Book review of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See.
After 530 pages in 1 ½ month, I could finally close the book All the Light We Cannot See. It was finished, it was done! I think in more than ten years I never read a book this thrilling, this captivating, and this mesmerizing as All the Light We Cannot See.
It’s the story of a blind girl and a blond boy during the Second World War in Europe. They meet only briefly, but the whole story is built around their lives and that final meet at the end of the war in St. Malmo, France.
The book starts with the first main character Marie-Laure who lives with her father in Paris. She soon is totally blind and is taught about life, her surroundings, and growing up by her father, the locksmith of the National Museum. He makes her models of her house and the city and teaches her to navigate the streets independently with the models' insight her head. A moving moment in time is when her dad lets her find her own way home through the noises and the traffic and the different smells of the shops and she finally manages to find her way. Doerr takes the readers by the hand and lets them experience life in all its splendor by the mind and touch and smell of a blind girl in the wonderful world of a museum with all its different artifacts.
Then there is the orphan Werner who lives with his sister in an orphanage in Austria. There he listens to the broadcast of radio and learns about the world and its possibilities. To him, this is an escape from a life destined to work in the coal mines and die there as their father did. He wants to get out of this predestined life and gets the chance when he is chosen to participate in a schooling program of the Hitler Youth.
Anthony Doerr writes with amazing swiftness, choosing beautiful prose to tell the story of both kids during their lives on different parts of the spectrum. Marie-Laure and her father flee from Paris with a special stone to St Malmo where her great-uncle Etienne lives with a housekeeper Madame Manec and all are busy as part of the resistance. Werner takes part in the schooling program of the Hitler Youth and goes to the front as a radioman, tracing illegal broadcasting in a German vehicle.
The different chapters are short and sweet, like chunks of literary wonders deeper into the ugliness of the war. There are different storylines, different characters, and different timetables all jumping over each other in an effort to grasp the chaos and mayhem of the war. It is not a story told from point A to B but the tale is a hank of woolen treats all working towards the meet of Marie-Laure and Werner, where he saves her life and is captured himself. When hospitalized with a delirium he walks on a land mine and dies, where Marie-Laure and her great uncle survived the war.
What I loved about this magnificent, brilliant tale is the world-building of the life of this blind girl and the life of this Hitler youth Werner. Doerr makes both very believable and realistic without condemning either world. Of course with the hindsight of today and the horrific past of the Germans in the Second World War, it is easy to condemn the choices of Werner but Doerr does not do that. Instead, he makes it understandable why a youngster like Werner took part in this brutal and nasty system. Also, the monster of the story, the German officer von Rumpel is not merely a monster chasing after the stone and in the end, chasing after Marie-Laure, but a man with cancer, a family, and two daughters. Nevertheless, I sighed with relief that Werner shot the man and rescued Marie-Laure. The suspense was chilling.
I think one of the themes in this book are friendship and love. And a deep sense of striving to let the best in you take over.
The title The Light We Cannot See refers to light being a magnetic field and therefore it is invisible. Nobody can truly see light, not only the blind. That’s what Marie-Laure and Werner have in common.