All the Light We Cannot See – a review

by James Reagan

Anthony Doerr’s latest novel, All the Light That We Cannot See, does not waste any time in throwing the readers into the action. The first couple chapters detail the World War II bombing of Saint-Malo, showing it from the perspective of the novel’s two main characters Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. After setting up the peril brought on by the bombing, Doerr decides to dial it back and to use flashbacks to describe the steps that brought these characters to Saint-Malo during the bombing.

We then get to see both characters grow up through the years, each being affected by the horrors of World War II in different ways. Marie-Laure becomes totally blind at the age of six years old and as a result, she becomes extremely dependent upon her father, a museum locksmith. Doerr is able to display their simple life together in Paris as being idyllic, which makes it all the more tragic when the Nazis take over Paris and both father and daughter are forced to flee to a reclusive uncle’s house in Saint-Malo.

Werner is a German orphan who lives in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta in the sleepy coal-mining town of Zollverein. It becomes clear even at a young age that Werner is exceptionally gifted at working with radios and so he ends up finding an unexpected deliverance from life as a coal miner by getting accepted into the Hitler Youth Academy. Even though the academy proves to be brutal place, Werner excels mostly due to his skills at working with radios and eventually he becomes a private with the Wehrmacht, which leads to him working in Saint-Malo right before the bombing.

As the chapters go by alternating between the lives of these two characters, there is a ton of buildup for the moment when they finally meet. And though it takes over 400 pages for that meeting to occur, it is well worth the wait. Doerr chooses for a complex, non-linear way of telling the story and though it is a little confusing to follow, the payoff is satisfactory when things come together later in the story.

The weakest part of the story is a “magical” diamond that Marie-Laure’s father brings with them when they flee Paris. This gem is supposedly the most valuable item in Paris’s Museum of Natural History as it has the power to protect its owner from death, though at the cost of hurting those that the owner cares about. A third stream of POV comes into play later in the book when a stereotypical evil Nazi named von Rumpel becomes obsessed with tracking down the LeBlanc’s and taking the diamond for his own selfish reasons.

Overall this book is a great read for anyone who is interested in historical fiction concerning World War II as Doerr does not skimp on the details and seems to have done his homework researching the novel. It is also not a book that you want to miss if you love reading beautiful descriptions and powerful passages that do an impressive job of bringing the story to life. Even with the somewhat clichéd subplot involving the diamond, the story is a strong one and it results in an ending that feels very grounded in reality for what actually happens to war survivors.

James Reagan is an aspiring freelance writer with a degree in Journalism from Messiah College. He enjoys reading and reviewing great books, as well as blogging about sports on Pro Football Spot.