All The Light We Cannot See is a historical novel set in France and Germany, mostly during the period 1934 - 1944. It follows the lives of two children: Marie-Laure – a blind, motherless, French girl living in Paris; and Werner – a German boy living in an orphanage just outside Essen. Marie-Laure and her father flee Nazi-occupied Paris and seek refuge with a reclusive uncle in the walled city of Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany. Werner discovers the amazing world of radio – becoming an expert at building and fixing them – and is enlisted to track down the Resistance. To further complicate the story, Marie-Laure’s father may be hiding a valuable blue diamond that carries a dangerous curse. The paths of the two children finally cross in Saint-Malo in August 1944, with life-long repercussions.
I have mixed feelings about this book. The story and the plot are carefully crafted and it is a real page-turner. The tension build-up is gripping, helped by the short chapters that flip between the POV of the two main characters (and a third character – a Nazi Sergeant Major). The timeline also flips between pre-war Germany and France; and wartime occupied Europe. “Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever”. The imagery is ornate and delicious, with the two graphical worlds of science and nature that ultimately combine. The images are particularly important because Marie-Laure is blind. Doerr carefully draws on other senses – and the girl’s imagination – to create a world where she sees nothing but visions everything. The writer also captures the atrocities of WWII without taking away the main themes of the book: redemption, self-protection and most importantly of all – interconnectedness. The scenes at Werner’s elite Nazi training school are particularly tyrannical. “But minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.” Doerr also drops in some clever foreshadowing throughout the book, some of it not necessarily obvious until the final chapter is read and the complete story finally connects together across decades and geographies. And the blue diamond is an almost mythical sub-plot, helping to move the story along with an interesting twist at the end.
There are two aspects of the book I didn’t like. Firstly, the book could be about twenty per cent shorter – with less adjectives – and I don’t think would lose substance. Doerr himself admits the book is full of lyricism, which is why he wrote such short chapters and hopes the reader understands this. I do understand this, but I’m not sure I’m a fan of it. Secondly, some of the words didn’t ring true to voice. There are some American idioms (‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’, ‘sure’ instead of ‘yes’) that I‘m prepared to let go. But would a blind girl in 1940 know what an air conditioning unit sounded like? And would she think of ‘spider cracks of ice’?
If you like human stories about World War II, and like to consider the grey areas between good and evil, or the wonders of nature and science, then you’ll like this book. I think it could be categorised as Young Adult (YA) fiction: the short sentences and chapters, the young protagonists and their coming of age. But it’s also a wonderful read for all age groups. I’ll end with a quote that recurs throughout the book when Werner is reminded of a broadcast he heard on the radio as a young boy.
“Open your eyes … and see what you can with them before they close forever…”