When I fall in love with a book, I regurgitate cliches. It’s embarrassing.
“Oh, that book was great.” “Fantastic.” “Amazing.” “Soooooo good. You HAVE to read it.”
All The Light We Cannot See is fantastic and amazing and yes, you have to read it. Why? Because it’s great, that’s why.
But for those detail-oriented folks out there, here are multiple reasons to pick up Anthony Doerr’s beautiful book:
1. The people: Our two characters are growing up hundreds of miles apart in pre-War Europe. Motherless Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father. She goes blind early in the story, but that doesn’t stop her from knowing every inch, every employee, ever pinned butterfly inside the Museum of Natural History, where her father works as a locksmith. Meanwhile, in the slowly-growing war machine that is Germany, there’s an orphan boy named Werner. Because he’s without parents or means to live, his destiny is to work in the same coal mine where his father died. But as soon as you meet him, you know there’s so much more for him to do: “He captures snowflakes, tadpoles, hibernating frogs; he coaxes bread from bakers with none to sell; he regularly appears in the kitchen with fresh milk for the babies. He makes things too: paper boxes, crude biplanes, toy boats with working rudders.” How can you not root for Werner when you know in a few years the coal mines or the war will be nipping at his heels?
2. Times and places: The setting changes regularly throughout the entire novel. Doerr makes a quick trip into 1944 during the first few chapters. Marie-Laure and Werner are young adults,and no, they have not met. They’re in the midst of unrelenting allied bombing over Saint-Malo, a historic walled city on the Breton coast of France. It’s two months after D-Day and the Germans have retreated. Their backs are against the sea. A few short chapters later, when our characters are younger, the story retreats to 1934 . Werner’s got a damp, dirty industrial complex outside his window while in Paris Marie is at home or at work with her father.
3. The ‘Ah-ha! moment: I’ve watched just as many WWII documentaries, programs and movies growing up as I did cartoons. My Dad was a history teacher and a WWII veteran and there was always an ongoing, “What was it like during the war, Dad?” conversation floating around. I watched each episode of Combat, 12 O’Clock High, Victory at Sea and World at War with the same question on my mind: how did this happen? How did the German people succumb to this madman? Now, thanks to this novel, I’m starting to get answers. It was the radio.
Werner survived in that orphanage because of the radio. He found one in a storage shed, fixed it and began to listen to music and science lectures broadcast all the way from France. He tinkered and experimented and kept his soul alive with knowledge tucked away during those science programs. It was the mid-1930s, and in between those elevating moments, he heard this: “Is it any wonder that courage, confidence and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness.” It’s no wonder, then, that Doerr used this quote to introduce his first chapter: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” –Joseph Goebbels.
4. The plot: You know the Germans will invade and conquer. Before they arrive in Paris Marie-Laure and her father flee the city and find refuge in Saint-Malo, where great Uncle Etienne lives. He is an emotionally-damaged WWI veteran who has remained indoors since he returned from battle. We discover that he’s got a radio transmitter in the attic. Hmm. The radio, again, contributes to the story.
As Werner grows he masters the inner workings of the radio. Eventually, he’s selected for military school where Nazi political doctrine and brutality are on full display. Those chapters were the most disturbing to read, especially how faculty isolated and then tested and punished the weakest among them. Another “Ah-ha” moment for me, I suppose. So this is how young SS officers were created, huh? Werner’s refuge was the science lab , but not even those perks will protect him from war on two fronts.
And with every page, the big question lingered: Will Marie-Laure and Werner ever cross paths? Will the war somehow throw them together?
Back in 2009 I read The Book Thief, and I thought that it would remain at the pinnacle of WWII fiction for a very long time. Five years later this book comes along. Here’s what they have in common–both feature children living in dire circumstances who come of age during war. They do what they need to do to survive while trying to keep their humanity in tact. The Book Thief was a sensation, but All The Light You Cannot See is every bit as good. It’s fantastic, amazing. You have to read it.