A story of two children in the midst of war, family losses, and how the radio affected lives. Minor spoilers included.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a historical fiction novel about the beginning of the Second World War and its aftermath. Doerr’s story is centered on two children, and set against the background of the war; specifically in France (Paris and Saint Malo) and Germany.
The plot focuses on a blind French girl Marie Laure Le Blanc and a German orphan Werner Pfennig, they meet at some point in the story. Marie Laure and her father both struggle to stay alive amidst the chaos. Throughout the first part of the story, Marie Laure’s father focuses on building a miniature model of the city to help her navigate the city on her own. The counterpart storyline tells of Werner and his journey from an orphanage in Zollverein to the military training school National Political Institutes of Education in Germany. While Werner is at first fascinated with the concept of being accepted into a prestigious school, he soon realizes that it is the exact opposite of what he thought it was. His talent in radio mechanics is soon used as a weapon to kill French and Russian soldiers, to his horror. The contrast between the two storylines are explicit: Marie Laure’s day-to-day filled with hope and support from loving family members contrasts Werner’s own harsh lifestyle in the dark reality of Hitler’s Youth during wartime.
The novel begins with an excerpt from Philip Beck’s The Burning of Saint Malo, and German politician Joseph Goebbels’ quote about the radio, as if to foreshadow the coming events of the story. The characters in the book seem all too real, and the author’s penchant for detail is magnificent in itself. He takes the reader through the alleyways of Paris and invites them to marvel at museums and gemstones.
What I loved particularly about Doerr’s writing style is the richness of it, and the fact that he kept his chapters extremely short but also efficient enough in delivering the content of the chapter. He incites fear when things take a turn and also creates a feeling of warmth when the characters rejoice at the end of the war. In addition, the author accurately describes the nature of the characters to the point of familiarity, but he has done so with refined features instead of putting them off bluntly.
One thing I did not at all enjoy was the tragic ending of the book. The author took the story in an entirely different direction than what I initially expected, to the point that I’ve had to put the book down a few times for fear of the worst. Nevertheless, Doerr was successful at portraying what life was like for both the French and the Germans, even describing some excruciating scenes with precision and vividness. He does good to not gloss things over and tells it as it truly was during the aftermath of the war, leaving no leaf unturned.
I have to admit it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read such a wonderful book and much praise must be given to the author for bringing life to these characters and creating an attachment between them and myself. Ending it with my favorite quote from the book: “The brain is locked in total darkness of course. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement”.