“All the Light We Cannot See” is a historical novel written by Anthony Doerr. It was published on May 6, 2014 by Scribner.
It’s about time I finally got around to reading this. “All the Light We Cannot See” has become a recent phenomenon in the literary world. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, the highest award a work of fiction can receive, along with the GoodReads Choice Award and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It’s been given universal acclaim from all age groups. It spent over a year at the No. 1 spot on Amazon’s bestseller booklist, and it’s still at No. 14. It’s already been taught in one of my classes. It’s been on shelves for 19 months and they still haven’t even started printing paperbacks yet—it’s all hardcover. This novel is a monolith that we don’t see too often.
So, what is it about?
The novel, set in WWII, covers roughly nine years and gives additional glimpses into the distant future. It provides several points of view, but spends the vast majority on these two:
A French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc who goes blind at the age of six. Her father, a brilliant and creative locksmith, helps her overcome this by building wooden replicas of Paris that she studies with her hands, memorizing the city in its entirety. She also falls in love with reading braille copies of books, especially “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne. Not many years later, when the Germans invade France and Paris, she and her father are forced to flee to her uncle’s house in a small coastal town called Saint-Malo. Unknown to her is that when they fled, her father also took with him a gem from the museum in which he worked—a gem with a long running myth that the wielder would be immortal, but all around them would become cursed.
In Zollverein, Germany, an eight year old boy named Werner Pfennig lives with his sister, Jutta, at an Orphanage. Together, they find a broken radio that Werner becomes obsessed with. He ends up teaching himself how it works and how to fix it. Rather than growing up to work the coal mines like most men in his town, this new skill gets him pulled from the house and into an elite German military training school. His talent in science propels him forward and eventually leads him to creating a device that allows the Germans to track radio signals to their source. Werner and the unit he is assigned to are then tasked with tracking down and killing illegal anti-German broadcasters. With each one, Werner is increasingly sickened and depressed by the killings. He misses the time when science was an instrument of wonder, not death. His device eventually leads him to Saint-Malo…
I absolutely loved it.
It’s a novel where a blind girl describes the world to you through sound and touch, using vague memories of sight to create fantastical images out of what she is encountering. It teaches you the inner workings of a radio and how to identify diamonds, without ever becoming like a manual. I found the prose to be astoundingly thought out and detailed. Every emotion is tied to a memory of the past, every memory evokes all five senses at once. It plants you so deeply into the story that your left feeling like you lived it.
The novel has a very non-linear plot. We jump back and forth from the climax to earlier periods, everything leading up to the final days of the war in Saint-Malo. Doerr takes the time to show us all of the twists and turns in these peoples’ lives. Coming of age, war, myth, the power of nature, how little events will change the rest of our lives. It makes us think about the uncertainties of life. How not everyone becomes what they are by choice. How the littlest things we do can have the largest of impacts. How morality can be such a grey area to judge.
“All the Light We Cannot See,” set in WWII, which spends half it’s time following a German solider, never once uses the word “Nazi.” This struck me really hard. Doerr does not for a moment allow the novel to be overtaken by the horrors of WWII. We know it’s there, we know what Werner is doing, but it illuminates the characters so profoundly that the war cannot possibly cloud our judgement.
If you’re looking for a book as a holiday gift, this is the one. If you’re the kind of person who fits in maybe one book a decade, this is the one. If you’re a writer looking for inspiration, this is the one.
I highly recommend buying “All the Light We Cannot See.” It’s a novel that doesn’t come around often, and one that we may not see again for some time.
You can buy “All the Light We Cannot See” from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, BookDepository, and most other major booksellers.