Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is an incredible novel. It’s immensely popular, with upwards of 60,000 ratings on Goodreads, and it won the Goodreads Choice for best historical fiction in 2014. Upon finishing, it’s no wonder the novel has received such praise and attention.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is just six years old when she loses her sight. Her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, handcrafts a model of their entire neighborhood, with every detail included, down to the shutters on the houses and the manholes in the street. Marie-Laure learns the model, memorizes every aspect so that she is able to traverse the neighborhood on her own. The German aggression at the start of what would become World War II is a distant thing to Marie-Laure. The Parisians hear horror stories of the German advance. Surely they cannot invade France? We must be safe here in Paris. When the Germans come knocking (read: battering), Marie-Laure and her father flee from Paris to the small walled city of Saint-Malo, Brittany and the household of Etienne LeBlanc, Marie-Laure’s great uncle. Little do they know, there’s no escaping the war in France.
Werner Pfennig is a young German orphan who lives in an orphanage with his sister, Jutta. When Werner finds a discarded, smashed radio, he tinkers with it until its static, slowly reforming into voices, announces its revival. It’s not long before Werner’s brilliant mind is discovered by German authorities, and he’s given a place in a harsh military school before joining the Wehrmacht itself, roving the countryside in search of Resistance fighters.
All the Light We Cannot See is many things. A tale of two youths coming of age in a time where their countries were being sundered by war, and from the blurb, the paths of Marie-Laure and Werner are destined to cross. It’s an exploration of human nature, both good and evil. It’s a tale of magic, friendship, love and loss. Doerr writes with staggeringly beautiful prose and, harmonizing with short, precise chapters, the tale within All the Light We Cannot See moves with verve and passion, evoking a swathe of emotions with the turn of every page.
Storms rinse the sky, the beaches, the streets, and a red sun dips into the sea, setting all the west-facing granite of Saint-Malo on fire, and three limousines with wrapped mufflers glide down the rue de la Crosse like wraiths…
Every word has its place, and the struggles of Marie-Laure and Werner, of Jutta and Etienne, even of Reinhard von Rumpel become ours. The war’s grim reality is recreated in this prose that borders on haunting. The characters have layer after layer of depth. You can’t help but smile along with Marie-Laure when her feet touch the sand for the first time, when she hears the waves of the English Channel crash against the shore of Saint-Malo, or share her fear when she cannot see the cause of it. You can’t help but share Werner’s utter fascination and enchantment with all things scientific, all things related to the radio, or his anguish and sadness when he and his squad track down Resistance fighters who are summarily executed.
All the Light We Cannot See is a deeply, deeply moving novel that encompasses so much of what I love to see when I read. It has a beautifully detailed setting and an exceptional cast. It evokes emotion and has prose unparalleled in anything I’ve ever read. It’s a stunning package culminating a decade of Doerr’s work, and his dedication shows.
The bony figure of Death rides the streets below, stopping his mount now and then to peer into windows. Horns of fire on his head and smoke leaking from his nostrils and, in his skeletal hand, a list newly charged with addresses. Gazing first at the crew of officers unloading from their limousines into the château.
Then at the glowing rooms of the perfumer Clade Levitte.
Then at the dark tall house of Etienne LeBlanc.
Pass us by, Horseman. Pass this house by.