How’s this: I’m reviewing a #1 book on the #1 day of the year! Cute, eh? I’ve been meaning to read All The Light We Cannot See ever since it topped the Dymocks 101 back in 2017 (and it was only just pipped at the post by Harry Potter on the 2018 list, too). So, this seems as good a time as any!
All The Light We Cannot See was written by American author Anthony Doerr, and published by Scribner in 2014. It went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Plus, it spent nearly 120 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List for Hardcover Fiction. Long story short, a lot of really smart people really liked it… but that was all I knew about it going in.
Now, I’ve struggled to find a way to say this sensitively (diplomacy is not my talent), so I’m just going to go for it: I was kind of disappointed to find that it was a(nother) fictionalised account of WWII. Will we never tire of them? I mean, these stories are getting so much air time of late, and for me they’re starting to wear a bit thin. The real-life WWII narratives we have are so compelling (see: Diary of a Young Girl, or The White Mouse), and there are so many other conflicts that we could examine, from all across the world, some still ongoing… I’m not saying WWII should be forgotten about altogether (I’m not a monster!), but I’m ready for something else to get a look-in.
Anyway, to the review (and consider this my timely reminder that I do not give a shit about spoilers, so read this review – and all others on Keeping Up With The Penguins – at your own peril): All The Light We Cannot See is set in Occupied France. It centers on two primary characters, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths eventually cross. It’s basically The Book Thief for grown-ups.
It took a few chapters for me to fall into Doerr’s rhythm. Every chapter follows a different character than the previous one, and the time-line jumps all around. It’s all done very carefully and deliberately, though, to reveal the story at exactly the right pace. I did settle into it after a while, and it’s totally possible for readers to stay with it as long as they keep their wits about them, so don’t let that put you off.
Straightened out, the chronology of All The Light We Cannot See goes something like this: we begin in 1934, where the blind six-year-old Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, while the eight-year-old Werner lives in a German orphanage with his sister. No one’s having fun. Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and there’s a rumour of a priceless – but cursed (oooh!) – diamond, buried somewhere in the bowels of the collection. The story goes that whoever holds the “Sea of Flames” jewel cannot die, but their loved ones would be stricken with unending misfortune as long as they have it.
In 1940, Germany sets about invading France, and Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father. Unbeknownst to her, his boss charged him with transporting and protecting the cursed diamond, and they are being pursued by a Nazi gemologist who will stop at nothing to get his greedy hands on it. They hide out in the home of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle (who’s bonkers, by the way), but the father is (inevitably) arrested by the Germans. He conceals the magic diamond in the model of the town that he built for his daughter, keeping it out of sight.
Marie-Laure, her great-uncle, and their maid find ways to help the Resistance, at great personal risk. I noted down, reading all of this, that Doerr did a great job of capturing the additional layer of terror experienced in this kind of situation by a person who lives with impaired vision, but he did so in a way that didn’t read to me as exploitative or “inspiration porn”-y. So, that’s one in his column!
Meanwhile, Werner (back in the German orphanage) has shown a real gift for radio mechanics, and it draws the attention of the Nazi recruiters. They take him to a “school” (and I’m sure you can guess what it was like for him). When his skills are sufficiently honed, their HR department adjusts the record of his age to make him 18, which means they can send him out into the field. He and his fellow soldiers trace radio transmissions, and do/witness some sickening shit (well, they’re Nazis, so it’s a given).
Then, in 1944, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths converge. The Nazis have traced a resistance radio transmission to the city of Saint-Marlo, where it is, indeed, broadcasting from Marie-Laure’s attic. What links the two of them and brings them together is that Werner used to listen to those same transmissions in the orphanage with his sister. The Nazis bomb the city within an inch of its life, but Werner decides not to reveal the location of the broadcast to his comrades (he’s a Nazi with a heart, I guess). He ends up seeking out Marie-Laure’s house for himself, and he kills the Nazi gemologist who has been ransacking the place (looking for that ol’ cursed diamond), effectively saving Marie-Laure’s life. When the bombing stops, Marie-Laure takes Werner to a hidden grotto, where she throws the diamond into the ocean (gasp!).
Werner then drops Marie-Laure off at a refugee camp, and stumbles off to a field hospital. He meets a pretty sticky end, actually – in his delirium, he steps on a land mine. Kaboom!
Then the story skips ahead to 1974, and speeds up considerably (this is the “big conclusion” of All The Light We Cannot See, that’s supposed to tie up all the loose ends). Werner’s former army boss tracks down his sister from the orphanage, and returns all of his personal effects to her – including the model of Marie-Laure’s house that once contained the cursed diamond. She, in turn, tracks down Marie-Laure, and returns the model to her. Marie-Laure’s father was never found, even after all the POWs were freed, and her great-uncle is dead. Everyone’s super-traumatised by this series of events, but they all try to pretend that they aren’t – it’s all super-healthy.
The story ends in 2014. Marie-Laure is walking the streets of Paris with her grandson, still blind, and marvelling at how the internet works.
All The Light We Cannot See is readable enough, but I had to Google Translate a few bits and pieces (from French and from German). It’s billed as a “touching story”, but I felt too skeptical to be truly moved. I’m really not sure how I feel about the depiction of a Nazi soldier “saving” a person with a disability. I think I understand what Doerr was trying to get at, but it’s a very sympathetic depiction of Nazis on the whole, and that extra layer of Marie-Laure living with a vision impairment was just a bit on the nose…
Tl;dr? Well, as I said, All The Light We Cannot See is basically The Book Thief for grown-ups. It’s worth reading as an academic exercise, to keep current with the landscape of literary fiction and all that. But if you’re looking for a revelatory WWII novel that completely changes your perspective, you can move right along, there’s nothing for you here.
My favourite Amazon reviews of All The Light We Cannot See:
- “This story pulls the reader into the life of a special girl. I am a man, so this is not at all a girl’s book. It is transcendant. You will not be disappointed.” – Kindle Customer
- “Eloquent writing, lame plot, shallow ending” – Yiannis F.
- “Why was she blind” – Dev Mac the conqueror
- “The linguistic and grammatical clumsiness, even in the sample, is unbearable. Talk about turgid prose. It was like walking on an inviting beach that turns out to be covered in sharp pebbles.” – Serious Reader
- “Was never able to read this book. Ordered it, but received Fifty Shades of Grey instead.” – MDWFORD