Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Shelf Rating: Top Shelf

All the Light We Cannot See is an award-winning novel about a blind French girl and a German boy who live on opposing sides during WWII as the Germans invade France. The fateful moment their paths cross impacts the rest of their lives. Marie-Laure lives with her father as he works at the Museum of Natural History. Werner Pfennig is an orphan living in an orphanage with his little sister. Marie-Laure becomes blind but grows in her aspirations of experiencing the world around her as much as possible.  Werner is limited in opportunities as he dreams of being a scientist. Werner soon becomes an expert in radio technology and earns himself a spot at Hitler Youth Academy. As the Germans close in on their city, Marie and her father escape from to Saint Malo, taking with them a mysterious jewel that may have life-altering powers. From the museum Marie-Laure’s father works, they take with them a jewel that possibly has life altering powers to it. Werner is taken through WWII and ends up in Saint Malo where they meet and quickly develop a bond.

Some books, though poor in writing, tell you a wonderful story. Although the writing can be awkward or overdone at times, the story line and character writing is good enough that it really doesn’t faze you. Other books, much like this one, have beautiful artistic writing, almost to the point where you feel at times that you are simply reading a poem with a story weaved through it. Anthony Doerr, the author of All the Light We Cannot See, put forth a lot of effort in his writing style. This book is full of metaphors, analogies, symbolic writing, etc. However, it got to the point from the middle of the story and onward that I began skimming just so I could get the story. While the story itself was captivating and interesting, if you’re like me, you may wish he focused on character development more or simply told the story rather than trying hard to make a scene into a metaphor. I did find myself lost in the story at times, but other times a bit confused and frustrated. For instance, this book happens to switch back and forth between characters quite a bit. On average, you will spend 2-3 pages with a character before he switches to another. That in itself made it difficult for me to bond with the characters or even focus on a single storyline as much as I would like. It can be distracting and confusing especially if you forget where your character is in the story. Not only that, but Doerr often switched forward and backwards in the timeline. We are reading what will happen to these characters before we even get there. It was sort of like reading the ending to a book before I got there, (spoiler alert, anyone?). So, if you are planning on reading this book prepare for some whiplash. There were also some loose ends in this book that did not seem resolved to me by the last page. For instance, the jewel at the museum that Marie-Laure’s father worked at was introduced in the beginning of the book. This jewel has a legend behind it. It was a jewel known to have powers that gave the person holding it immortality. The catch is, though, whoever has it is also cursed. They lose family members, finances, health, etc. The museum had this locked in a safe behind several locked doors to ensure no one was cursed and no one stole it. While leaving the city, the museum workers all got jewels. One person has the actual jewel, including possibly Marie-Laure’s father. The strong focus in the beginning on the jewel almost seemed as if it was supposed to be a strong part of the plot line. But when the action picked up in the story, the jewel plot line fell to the wayside. So much so, at the end of it all the jewel plot did not have much of a resolve to it. I was a bit disappointed as I thought perhaps Doerr could have done much more with this.

Don’t get me wrong, this is still a book worth reading. Those negatives did not outweigh the positives. The history you get with the story is rich in details. He gets the time period practical details correct. The racist attitudes were made real to the reader and you felt the impact along with those that were experiencing it. You really do feel like you are walking through the cities of France and Germany during the WWII time. You do not miss any important history in this book. The characters are rounded and relatable throughout the story. I found myself rooting for Werner to do the right thing the whole time and compassion and hurt for Marie-Laure. At the end of the book, you finally find the messages the book was building upon to teach to the reader. Many people today don’t take the time to truly understand or learn what occurred during WWII, much less what we can still glean from it today. Reading these kinds of stories helps to see WWII through the innocent civilian’s eyes as well as the German soldiers. Doerr did a fantastic job writing a story that stays with the reader. This book gives a strong message about morality, compassion, and being responsible for your own life’s choices despite your circumstances. 

These messages are clearly represented throughout the book and very well done. In Werner’s story, he has a little sister named Jutta. Early on Jutta’s strong moral compass helps point Werner in the right direction, but you quickly see that go amiss in him as he chases his ambitions and ideals. Werner and Jutta smuggle in a radio that Werner fixes and uses to listen to together. They get illegal updates about the war and what is going on in the outside world. One night Werner wakes to Jutta listening to the radio. 

““In Young Girls League,” she whispers, “they have us making socks. Why so many socks?”

“The Reich must need socks.”

“For what?”

“For feet, Jutta. For the soldiers. Let me sleep.”

And later on, in the conversation, 

“All you want to do are mathematics problems,” Jutta whispers. “Play with radios. Don’t you want to understand what’s happening?””

Werner then immediately questions what she is listening to on the radio, as if questioning her own desire for answers. She then says that they are dropping bombs on Paris. Werner clasps his hand over her mouth for fear that she will be heard. We already find the tension between choosing right despite your circumstances and choosing wrong because of what you believe are choices out of your hand. The reader sees a strong example of Werner not questioning or even wanting to know the truth of what is happening around him. He only sees his dreams, his ambitions, and his vision of who he wants to be, despite what it may mean. Jutta will go to great lengths to speak out against what she sees as wrong, and even as a young girl she does not mind the risks that it will take.

A chapter later shows us Werner, his sister, and the other orphans doing schoolwork at the table. A Lance corporal shows up at the door. Having heard of Werner’s talents in fixing radios, he calls on him to come to the house of Herr Siedler to fix his wife’s radio. When Werner succeeds, he finds himself in an interesting conversation with the man. In this, we find a quote from Herr Siedler.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course, we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”

He states that we act in our own self-interest. History is made by whoever wins. The irony of this quote is found in the next few sentences. Werner is offered a place at General Heissmeyer’s school. He offers this opportunity and tells him that they will teach him the mechanical sciences, the subject he’s dreamed of learning. “The best of the best”, he says. Werner hesitates but ultimately decides to do it, despite knowing what the values represent. Jutta immediately begins to feel afraid and betrayed. Werner senses this tension and even says to himself that her eyes said “You are betraying me”, but Werner responds inside, “but wasn’t he protecting her?” Werner saw his actions and his loyalties to Germany in the midst of the war as something right because of what he truly wanted, even though he knew deep down he simply didn’t want to hear what Jutta thought. He is acting in his own self-interest. He decides who the winner is in his situation whether or not it was right or wrong. All while seeing his littler sister’s response made him conflicted and uncomfortable. It threatened what he wanted out of his life. By the time Werner finished testing at the school, you read him shouting “Heil Hitler!” 

When Werner gets the letter that states he made it to the school, Jutta is disappointed and refuses to speak to Werner. Jutta begins questioning who he will become. She opens up about what she’s been hearing on the radio of what Germany has been doing to France. Werner shushes her out of fear, again. Finally, we find this one golden line.

““Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”” The next line tells us more about Werner’s mindset.

“Doubts: slipping in like eels. Werner shoves them back.”

This shoving back and shushing of the doubts he is running from leads him through the torments and trauma of WWII. He finds in the end that he was wrong, but all too late. The one theme of this book that is most apparent is the simple choice of right or wrong despite our circumstances, who we are surrounded by, and our inclinations. A little girl understood this at a young age and yet many of us adults today struggle with this one truth. Wrong is wrong no matter your circumstances or who is doing it. The tension we see in this book is made readily apparent. The irony is strong and the reader, by the end, watches it all unfold together. The choices each character makes, whether based on fear or justice, has an impact on the rest of their lives. The impact is made apparent to both themselves and the characters around them. This book has its drawbacks, but the lessons that can be learned are invaluable. 

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