All the Light We Cannot See

Length: 544 pages

Published: 6th May 2014 by HarperCollins UK

Recommended reader age: Adult

Genre: Historical fiction


About the Author:

Anthony Doerr is an American author who originates from Ohio, and now lives in Idaho.

He has written 2 story collections: The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, and Four Seasons in Rome. 

The novel I am going to attempt to do justice to today has won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction in the same year.

For more details about Anthony check out his website here

Main Characters:

Marie-Laure LeBlanc: The 1st of 2 main characters who is a blind girl living in what is to soon become German occupied France.

Werner Pfenning: The 2nd main character, a German orphan destined to work in the mines who uses his knack for engineering to change life paths.

Etienne: Marie-Laure’s great Uncle whose house she lives in Saint Malo.

Monsieur LeBlanc: Marie-Laure’s father, a locksmith, model builder and fantastic support and mentor to his daughter.

Jutta Pfenning: Werner’s younger sister

Plot summary, spoiler free I promise:

The novel starts with Marie-Laure in her uncles house, running her fingers over the scale model of Saint-Malo that her father built while the sound of bombers grows in the distance, this is the very sound that wakes Werner, 5 blocks away where he is part of a crew tending to an 88 anti-aircraft gun.

For Marie-Laure the story then follows her back in time to Paris, as a 6 year old with failing eyesight, where we are introduced to the Sea of Flames, a diamond rumoured to grant the owner immortality in exchange for unending hardships on those they love. Marie-Laure asks “why not just take the diamond and throw it into the sea” a month later she is completely blind. The fact she is blind is a major plot point, I’ll let you decide how much of a coincidence the timing is based on the rest of the book. 

We are then introduced to Monsieur LeBlanc, her father who teaches her braille, how to navigate her new world of touch and smell rather than sight. This is also the man who builds first, a scale model of Paris for her to learn the streets, and later the model of Saint Malo we see in the first chapter. We see the long process gives us the first glimpse of the lasting impression that her father cares deeply and has endless patience and support for her. 

The next few chapters are filled with rumours, first around the Sea of Flame and later, the approaching Germans, slowly the language changes from Glittering, Ribbon and Unafraid to Cold, Mad and Gasoline. Spring brings sandbags and soldiers, but no War yet. Throughout it all her father insists that there is nothing to be afraid of, until suddenly they are gone, waiting for a train with the rest of a panicked Paris. When no trains come they walk, with a diamond, which has a 1 in 4 chance of being the real Sea of Flames.

Alongside this, in alternating chapters, we also follow the story of Werner, starting as an orphan in Zollverein, a mining town in Essen, Germany. His story is dark from the start with Smoke and Steel and Patchwork. Yet his resourcefulness and curiosity are blended beautifully alongside this. 

At 8 years old, mirroring the development of Marie-Laure’s growing confidence, he begins to learn about radios. We follow him as he learns to repair and make. We discover with him the joy of hearing voices over a radio for the first time, and along side this runs the hardships of life in an orphanage as a war begins. Throughout it all his sister Jutta is by his side, much how Monsieur LeBlanc is a constant presence for Marie-Laure.

As the story progresses we see Werner become a member of the State Youth when this becomes mandatory, at 13 he is accomplished at repairing radios and juggles this, school and his own self guided study. At 14 even the youngest in the orphanage are becoming saturated with the propaganda created by the Reich. 

The novel follows this pattern. switching between past and present, always alternating between Marie-Laure and Werner. We see Marie-Laure showcase how brave, intelligent and resourceful she is as the war and parallel events unfold in Saint Malo. Meanwhile Werner starts at the National Political Institute of Education and learns many hard lessons among loss and personal growth. We follow his journey right through to his posting within the Wehrmacht. Throughout there are parallels that join the two together, coincidences and shared life stages that make this so compelling to read.

I won’t go any more into details because this is a story that absolutely needs to be experienced fully for yourself as you journey through the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner. 


My Thoughts:

I am absolutely spellbound by this book for a number of reasons.

Firstly it is set in my favourite period of history, World War 2, and although there are countless books set in this period, All the Light We Cannot See is told from such a unique perspective and in such a way that it does truly stand apart from others. 

The use of language stands out for me too, the descriptive words used truly bring a sense of the poetic to the novel, they paint a picture not only of objects but the emotions of the characters too. You truly feel like you are there alongside them, you hold your breath when they do, you cry and hurt and mourn right with them.

The author also captures key, unshakeable attributes of each character while giving them room to grow and change as the story progresses and external events shape their lives. It echoes the change that War brings to everyone, yet also the hope and compassion that underpins humanity.

I am truly convinced that some witchcraft was woven between the pages, this story touched me in such a profound way.,

Favourite quote:

Werner thinks about the men in the sunflowers and a hundred others: each lay dead in his hut or truck or bunker, wearing the look of someone who had caught the tune of a familiar song. A crease between the eyes, a slackness to the mouth. A look that said: So soon? But doesn’t it play for everybody too soon?

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