Book review: All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

light_we_cannot_seeLast month I published a post listing all the books I wanted to read in 2016, and now I’m happy to say I can cross one off my list! *celebration dance*

I figured there’s no point letting you all know the books I want to read with no follow-up, so I’m going to start posting reviews of each book once I finish reading them, to help you make up your mind if you want to read it too.

The first book up for review is the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Heads up – there will be spoiler alerts so if you don’t want to know what happens, scroll to the bottom for the final verdict.

Synopsis:

Set during pre, during and after World War Two, this is the story of blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and poor, German orphan Werner Pfennig, whose lives are turned upside down by the advent of World War Two. The story is also narrated by secondary characters, such as Marie-Laure’s depressed and anxious great-uncle Etienne LeBlanc, and Reinhold von Rumpel, a sergeant major whose mission is to find a magical and mythical diamond. The story flashes between the past and the present, usually at poignant parts of the novel. The two main characters finally meet towards the end of the war; though it’s brief, it’s also bittersweet.

Marie-Laure lives a charmed life in pre-war Paris; she becomes blind at a young age and her devoted father, Daniel, creates a miniature model of their neighbourhood, meaning she can memorise its streets and directions. When the Germans invade Paris, she and her father flee to Saint-Malo to live with his reclusive uncle Etienne and his housekeeper Madame Manec. Marie-Laure struggles to adjust to her new life until she meets Etienne, who hasn’t left the house since he returned from the first war. Together, they help each other overcome their fears and struggles. Her father is kidnapped by German soldiers en route to Paris, a fact Madame and Etienne try to hide from her, until a spiteful neighbour tells her the truth. She soon learns that her father has left her the Sea of Flames, a mythical diamond that’s said to bring immortality and happiness to its owner, but death to all their loved ones. Eventually, the Germans come to Saint-Malo using the town as a fort in their final efforts against the Allied Forces and Marie-Laure is forced to fend for herself.

Werner Pfennig is a twin (his sister is Jutta) and together they live in an orphanage in Zollverein, managed by the kind and motherly Frau Elena. Werner isn’t like the other kids in the orphanage; he becomes obsessed with radios and starts teaching himself the basics of physics. When he’s invited to repair the radio of a local Nazi official, he’s soon accepted into the National Political Institute of Science at Schulpforta and trained as a radio engineer. At first he’s excited, but life at Schulpforta becomes less charmed when he sees the school for what it really is: a well-oiled machine churning out violent boys without a conscience or any individual thought. When his best friend Frederick refuses to participate in the torture of a prisoner, he becomes heavily bullied at school and is one day beaten to the point where he becomes brain-dead. After this, Werner loses all enthusiasm for school and yearns for the orphanage.

When he expresses a desire to leave Schulpforta, he is told he must stay and soon after, he is sent out to the field to intercept radio signals across German territories. His final stop is Saint-Malo and he finally picks up genuine resistance messages for the Allies; however he quickly discovers they are being sent by the same man he grew up listening to and hides this knowledge from his fellow soldiers. In his discovery, he also stumbles across Marie-Laure and falls in love with her. When the Allies bomb Saint-Malo, Werner becomes trapped in the hotel he is based at and while mentally preparing himself for death, he hears Marie-Laure’s voice on his radio transmitter asking for help. He manages to escape the ruins of the hotel and rushes over to her house, kills von Rumpel (who is hunting for the Sea of Flames) and helps Marie-Laure escape.

In the end, Marie-Laure returns to Paris, lives on to becomes a well-respected expert on molluscs and works at the Musuém National d’Histoire Naturelle. Werner suffers a shorter fate; after being captured as a POW by the Allied Forces in Saint-Malo, he kills himself as he sees no future. The story also flashes to Jutta’s future, Werner’s twin sister, where after many years, she is visited by his fellow soldier and friend Frank Volkheimer, who returns Werner’s war belongings to her, and inadvertently, helps give her closure on her brother.

Verdict:

I love war stories – whether they’re fiction, or true stories, I love them all. However, some do fall into the trap of being predictable and being a rehash of WW2 history – yawn.

All the Light We Cannot See does not do this – in fact, it barely makes any reference to WW2 history, using historical references more as a marker of time and context, rather than the focus of the story. It’s beautifully written – a bit too beautifully as I found it hard to concentrate sometimes on the story being told, as I got carried away by the lyrical prose. Nonetheless, Mr Doerr weaves his story seamlessly between the past and present, clearly illustrating the fragile, complex personalities of the main characters against the harsh background of WW2.

All the Light We Cannot See is a lesson in resilience, faith and the human spirit in the face of adversity. The story has compelling characters who are appealing and tug at your heartstrings, and you can’t help but feel your heart swell when Etienne and Marie-Laure form their special bond, or at the moment when Werner realises his colleague and idol, Volkheimer is just as lost and alone as the rest of them.

Rating: 8/10 – a great read; waffles a bit in places; wonderful storytelling and reminds you that though there are two sides to a war, we all love and hurt the same as each other.

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