Written by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner
Reviewed by Yushin Jeng
Written in two distinct points of time, 1944 and 1934, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See starts at the beginning of the ending. The date is August 7, 1944, and the end of World War II is near. Saint-Malo, a walled city at the northern tip of France, is to be the grounds for Nazi Germany’s last stand for control over France. As the bombs are falling and the world, it seems, is about to explode, Doerr jerks us back to the safety of 1934 like yanking back a teetering glass before it tumbles over the edge of the table.
From 1934 onwards, we watch the two main characters Marie-Laure and Werner grow up in two different worlds where the Nazi regime is slowly taking hold. Marie-Laure is a blind girl who lives in Paris with her loving father, the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History. Her life is quaint, peaceful, filled with vibrancy, and follows a steady, reliable schedule. For Marie-Laure, the Germans bring war and fear and blood. As the threat of war looms ever closer, she and her father are forced to flee the soon-to-be-occupied Paris for Saint-Malo, burdened by a stone that may or may not be the most valuable (but cursed) diamond in the world.
Werner is a small boy growing up in an orphanage in Zollverein, a poor, soot-covered mining town in Germany. An intelligent and curious boy, Werner’s mind is sparked by the magic of radios. For Werner, the Nazis offer a future out of the suffocating town he grew up in and into a promising future of glory and riches and scientific achievements. Werner heads off to Hitler Youth where he is favored for his talent with radios, and is eventually sent to war to track down enemy radio transmissions across Eastern Europe until he is ultimately led to Saint-Malo where his and Marie-Laure’s paths will cross.
Doerr writes the story during the years leading up to 1944 and during the days following the bombing of Saint-Malo in 1944 until the times merge together. He masterfully builds anticipation at one point before leaping back into the other, keeping the reader eager to read on to find out what happens. Doerr’s other works take on a lyrical cadence and manifest his affinity for nature; All the Light We Cannot See is no exception. His prose is brimming with imagery that bursts with poetic description. He describes the coastline through the imagination of a blind girl, writing that she “imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins.” Many of the other scenes that are depicted in the book are similarly of the imagination, so the tone of the book takes on an almost dreamlike quality.
Doerr writes All the Light We Cannot See as historical fiction, employing the commonly cited time period of World War II to show examples of humanity at its worst. Rather than focusing specifically on discrimination towards Jews (though he does touch on that) as it typically done, he utilizes the war to show the injustices of the world. How is it, he seems to be saying, that people who do the right thing are so often punished? How is it that acts of justice and goodness so frequently go unacknowledged and unseen? How is it that bad things happen to good people? And how can people find the strength to do the right thing when it is so much easier and safer to do the wrong thing with everyone else? Dealing with questions of morality, this book is for the readers wondering how humans manage to carry on with their lives when so much evil corrupts the rare purity in the world. It is also for the readers who wish to read about characters who find the strength in themselves and the goodness in the world that provide the reasons to do the right thing.
Yushin Jeng was born in Taiwan and lives in Athens, Ohio where she is a student at Ohio University.