Review: “All the Light We Cannot See,” Anthony Doerr

Rating:  4.5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks.  When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home.  When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find.  Werner becomes and expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance.  More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war, and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

I listened to All the Light We Cannot See as an audiobook (this may or may not be important information).

As a general rule, I do not like books set in times of war (I may have to rethink that assessment, however).  They either tend to sacrifice humanity for the depiction of war, or vice versa.  I found that most masterful aspect of All the Light We Cannot See to be the ways that Doerr avoided doing exactly that.

This story is told through linked, third-person limited vignettes.  The time jumps around from 1941 to 1944, with the narratives gradually converging.  This was done extremely well – each vignette drove the reader (or listener) forward through the narrative without sacrificing the stories of the others.  I think this is something that I may have lost a bit of in listening to the audio – it was somewhat difficult for me to keep track of the timelines.

In a strong contrast to the last book I reviewed (which I was reading at the same time), all of the major characters in All the Light We Cannot See progress.  They are all multifaceted and have sufficient background to illustrate their personalities and development.  As a reader (listener), I never quite knew what they were going to do – I certainly do like that in my characters.  Although they sometimes behaved unpredictably, they seemed to move to where they ended up in a way that seemed neither contrived nor forced – in some ways, it seemed inevitable, even though a single decision at any point of the narrative would have changed their outcome.

At about of a quarter of the way through the novel, I remarked that it was a fascinating look at propaganda and how things like the Third Reich come to happen – and I maintain that is true, although those themes diminished somewhat through the rest of the narrative.  There is a focus on rhetoric and communication, and somewhat less so on propaganda, and the ways that it influences people – not to mention how different people interpret it.  This isn’t preachy, and it certainly isn’t a history lesson.  One thing that I found particularly intriguing was the way Doerr avoids the terms that we use for that period of history – there isn’t a single mention of Nazis or swastikas or concentration camps, although all are present in the narrative.  The characters wouldn’t have used those terms, I supposed, so the narration doesn’t.  When the word ‘camp’ is finally used explicitly in the last quarter of the text, it’s rather shocking – it is bleak and jarring in a way that it wouldn’t have been had that been the vocabulary of the rest of the novel.

My one criticism of All the Light We Cannot See is the ending – not the events so much as the style.  The conclusion dragged on a bit, and revisited stories that I didn’t feel needed tying up.  It’s a minor criticism, but there were parts at the end that I just didn’t feel added anything to my experience of the novel.

Overall, though, I think this is a masterful look at the people of war and how that war shaped them.  It’s not preachy, optimistic, or pessimistic – it just is.  I find that to be much more realistic than the books that made me dislike war settings.


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