Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

April 21, 2015: Congratulations to Anthony Doerr, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this book!

I know sixteen posts in a row on Tolstoy theology is a little much, even for me. Only 24 more to go and then I may even end up with the first draft of a Kindle study guide. But for the sake of relief and variety I thought I would start interspersing my Tolstoy posts with some book reviews and maybe some other fun and interesting things.  Maybe I’ll even start sharing my Middlemarch character illustrations! How’s that for coming attractions? Seriously, I thank everyone who comes to this blog and reads my stuff. I can’t tell you how much I value my readers, even those who disagree with my opinions. : )

I recently finished reading a wonderful new novel that has gotten lots of attention in the press. All the Light We Cannot See has been a bestseller, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was listed by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2014. But I didn’t know any of those things before I began reading it. As usual I was attracted by something that is hard to define. I got a whiff it was about a blind girl in World War II and had a strong feeling I ought to read it. I’m glad I followed that hunch. Here’s my Goodreads review:

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What happens when decent ordinary people who just want to live their lives get caught up in an ugly war? What if you are an orphan in a poor mining town and your government comes around and informs you that you have to sacrifice your dreams and maybe your life for some weird ideal? All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr focuses on the stories of two young people whose lives are swallowed up and molded by malignant forces outside of their control.

In 1934 Marie-Laure is a six-year-old Parisian girl who lives with her widowed father, Daniel LeBlanc, a locksmith. When she loses her eyesight, her patient father works with her to learn the skills she will need to liver her life as a blind person. He creates for her a scale model of their area of Paris complete with all the streets and replicas of each building. Each day Marie-Laure walks with her father to the natural history museum where he works, constructing safes and keeping the display cases in good repair. Here she has the opportunity to become familiar with a great variety of smells, sounds, and textures, and it is here that she develops a special love for sea creatures with intricate shells. Beginning when she is seven years old, Daniel begins gently forcing his daughter to begin walking on her own between the museum and their home. These lessons in independence will later become crucial to her survival.

Doerr’s beautiful portrayal of Marie-Laure’s inner world is the heart of this book. Marie-Laure does not live in a world of darkness, but one that is full of light, color, and imagination, constructing pictures of people and things through touch, hearing, smell, and feeling. The fact that her Doerr made her father a locksmith is a stroke of brilliance. What could be more touch-sensitive than a key? Also the jangling of his huge key ring gives him a special sound.

For each of Marie-Laure’s birthdays her father makes her an intricate puzzle box. When she figures out how to open it, which she becomes very skilled at doing, she finds a truffle inside. In addition to the puzzle box, she receives a new Braille book. The novel she receives for her 12th birthday, just before they have to flee from their home in Paris, is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a novel that plays a part in the novel, both factually and metaphorically. Daniel also con

The second main character is Werner Pfennig, a German orphan. His story begins when he is seven years old and lives in a small orphanage in a poor coal mining town called Zollverein. At Children’s House, about a dozen or so children live under the care of a single woman, Frau Elena. Werner is very close to his younger sister, Jutta. Every now and then a Nazi official comes by the orphanage and reminds the children that all boys will go to work in the mines on their 15th birthday and that their work is important to the glory of the Reich. The two oldest boys soon become involved in Hilter Youth.

Werner likes to read every book on science and technology he can get his hands on such as The Principles of Mechanics by Heinrich Hertz. He teaches himself to build radios out of scrap metal and wire that he and Jutta salvage from around town. Eventually his adeptness at working with radios gains him the recognition of a town official and instead of being sent to the mines he is sent to a Nazi training school. Jutta is upset and disappointed but it is unclear what she expects her 14-year-old brother to do under the circumstances. The children really have very little ideas what the Nazis are about, but somehow Jutta knows they are bad.

To me Werner’s story is deeply sad. How children were morally warped, brainwashed, and eventually killed by the Nazi system is one of the many horrible stories that came out of that war. The school is brutal but a few things happen that help him get through it: he makes a decent friend, a dreamy kid names Frederick who is obsessed with birds, and due to his talent in technology, he becomes a teacher’s pet and is assigned a protector: a giant hulk of a student named Frank Volkheimer, another great character. Frederick does not fare as well and his story is one of the saddest in the book.

I have read quite a few novels about World War II and this may be my favorite. The characters are wonderful and most of them somehow maintain their humanity is difficult circumstances and even become heroic. However the novel is realistic about the limitations of heroism. When Marie-Laure and her father must flee Paris they end up in Saint-Malo in Brittany where Marie-Laure finally gets to feel and smell the sea. There they move in with Daniel’s uncle Etienne, who went crazy after his experiences in World War I, which included losing his beloved brother. Etienne develops a warm relationship with his niece and it is his love for her that finally motivated him to emerge from his isolation and participate in the underground resistance.

The main villain is Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, an evil Nazi gem assessor who has been diagnosed with cancer. He is obsessed with finding a huge blue diamond called the Sea of Flames, which according to legend has special healing powers. As a child, Marie-Laure was told the diamond was in the museum and was worth five Eiffel towers. It seems to have disappeared in the chaos but it just may be hidden inside a certain tiny model house.

My assessment of the quality of a novel is based on three things: Is the writing good? Am I interested and drawn into the story? And most importantly, do I feel like I am a better person for having read it? All the Light We Cannot See passes all three tests with triumphant fireworks!

View all my reviews

Originally written March 6, 2015.

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