Published by Scribner on May 6, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
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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.