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

Posted May 5, 2014 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 34 Comments

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner on May 6, 2014
Pages: 544
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher
Buy on The Book Depository

Marie-Laure grows up in Paris with her father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History. Although she is blind, she is fascinated by the mysterious beauty of nature, and she delights in the smell of ocean mollusks and touching the tiny coils of snails. Her father builds her a wooden model of their neighborhood so she can memorize the streets by touch and learn to navigate on her own. When World War II closes in on Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a small town on the Brittany coast, where they live with her shell-shocked great uncle and his housekeeper.

Werner grows up with his sister in an orphanage in a German coal-mining town. When they find a crude radio, the siblings are entranced and Werner teaches himself its workings. He becomes known around the village for his skills with radios, and people come from all around to have him fix machines that seasoned professionals can’t mend. His talent lands him a spot at an elite military academy, where he learns to use his knowledge of math and radios to track the Resistance. Eventually, his work takes him to Saint-Malo, where his path intersects with Marie-Laure’s.

All the Light We Cannot See is a wonderful book. Doerr’s writing is gorgeous, and despite many scenes of brutal violence and a fiery attack that devastates Saint-Malo, this novel maintains a kind of quiet, soft tone. There’s a calm stillness to it, despite the war setting. I loved how, even though half the book is told from the perspective of a blind girl, it is incredibly cinematic. Doerr has a fantastic way with words, evoking colors, scents, textures, and touch in really beautiful ways.

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate  and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears crows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

I really loved the characters in this book: curious Marie-Laure with her braille copy of Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; her father, who fosters her love of learning and builds her complicated puzzle boxes; her kindly great uncle Etienne, who was psychologically damaged by WWI, but who risks his life to transmit codes for the Resistance; Werner, who struggles with the morality of the work he must do under Hitler’s regime; his sister Jutta, who draws exquisite pictures of Paris, a city she’s only seen in photos; Frederick, his military school bunkmate, a sensitive boy who loves birds; and Volkheimer, a deadly giant of a soldier with a love of classical music and a soft heart at his core. Each of the characters in this book are beautifully rendered sparks of human life amid the horrors of war.

All the Light We Cannot See is a remarkable novel about two characters on opposing sides of WWI. It’s populated by shining, complex characters, and the writing is absolutely stunning. I can’t recommend this book enough.

 I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for my honest review.

  • Everything I’ve heard about this has been great.

    • It’s all true!

  • Yvo

    Sounds really interesting! I will be keeping an eye out for a copy.

  • Out of that whole chunkster of a book, isn’t it crazy that I picked the exact quote to use in my review? (I’ll find another one so we can share a bit more of his awesome words with everyone) But it’s so perfect to show how amazingly he writes from Marie-Laure’s perspective and what a fantastic world builder he is. So much love for this book.

    • That’s crazy! It’s such a long book, and ALL the writing is so beautiful! But I love how this quote demonstrates his talent at richly describing the world of a girl who can’t see.

  • I have heard nothing but good things about this book, and it sounds just right for me. Hopefully I will get to it some day soon. Perfect quote, and great review!

    • I think you’d love it!

  • This book sounds amazing!

    • It’s soooo good!

      • I will add it to my wishlist for sure. 🙂 By the way I finished that Last Girlfriend on Earth book today – actually I read almost all of it today in a single session after my partner did yesterday. We both love it, I haven’t laughed that hard at a book in a while. Now I just have to find a way to review it… But yeah point is I need to remember more often that you have kickass taste in books! 😀

        • Yay, I’m glad you both like it! Such a fun read 🙂 You have kickass taste in books (and TV) yourself, sir!

  • Love his short stories. Very excited to read this one.

    • I definitely need to seek out more of his writing.

  • I just finished this book last night, and I can only agree with you. Great book!

    • I’m glad you loved it too!

  • Woah, I so want to read this book after reading your reviews. It sounds beautiful!

    • It really, really is.

  • I’ve heard nothing but raves on this one- I’ll have to pick it up!

    • Definitely! I think you’d like it.

  • Beautiful review. Mine will be up tomorrow and I completely agree with you!

  • This sounds so good! I have a copy on my kindle right now and I’m getting more and more excited to read it as the positive reviews show up 🙂

    • I can’t wait to hear your thoughts after you read it!

  • This sounds like a wonderful read and I can already tell where the title came from (blind protagonist). I feel like I’ve read other reviews about this one but I can’t recall where or when, which is a shame because this is a book that needs to be read.

    • It absolutely needs to be read 🙂

  • Lovely review. I want to read this one myself now, as it sounds so good!

    • It’s so so so good!

  • Yes, it was very good. You stated it perfectly when you said that even with the backdrop of war the book maintains a soft tone. Beautiful review Leah!

    • Thanks 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it as well!

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  • I was unsure about this book, but now I’m very intrigued! I’ve never read a book starring a blind person before. The line where it says “exists a rawer and older world” really gets to me. Like shivers up and down the spine. It’s so good. Thanks so much for the review, I’m going to check it out!

  • BuffaloCharlie

    I enjoyed your review and the book was a remarkable enjoyable experience.

    The bonds between Werner and Jutta, Marie-Laure and her father, and then Marie-Laure with Etienne (would enjoy spending an afternoon with these two), and the heartfelt concluding scenes with Jutta and her son, were so well written and displayed by Doerr.

    This is my current go-to for a book recommendation. Doerr’s early short-story collection, The Shell Collector, is also a title that I often recommend to other readers.

    Interestingly, as I was reading this, I realized that I had an nice illustrated copy of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, so I immediately read that after finishing Doerr’s latest. If you enjoyed, at all, Marie-Laure’s love for sea animals, you get that in spades in Verne’s tale.

    On a side note, is there a way yet to subscribe to your posts, its helpful for me to get an email letting me know you have a new post up. And, great work on the new site, really like the colors, fonts, and overall formatting.

    • This book has really stuck with me. I haven’t read anything else by Doerr, but now I want to check out The Shell Collector!

      One of the downsides of my new blog theme is that the lack of a sidebar means I can’t stick an email subscription widget in there. I’m going to try launching a weekly email newsletter soon, but in the meantime, I link to all of my posts on Facebook and Twitter (links are in the footer).

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