All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
Genre: Historical Fiction
Major Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2015)
There are so many places I could begin in reviewing this book, so let me start with an informal phrase I uttered when talking about this book with friends: This is the least warry World War II book I’ve ever read. Simply put, while this book follows the plight of several characters before, during, and after the war, its focus is on those characters and how their lives intertwine – not on the vast scope of the War itself. Each choice that each character makes can and does have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences, and this book shares two major ideas with Rowling’s Harry Potter works, including the necessity of doing what’s right instead of what’s easy and the fact that it’s our choices that define who we are. Hmmm. It seems that within the course of writing this paragraph, I’ve talked myself out of my original statement. What could be more relevant to war than the extreme circumstances that people find themselves in and the importance of the decisions they make?
The second characteristic I would like to note reflects my only real criticism. The treatment of time is somewhat jarring. We move forward and backward in time along three different story arcs, waiting for them to intersect. This non-linear progression proves difficult to follow at times, especially if listening to an audiobook, according to a friend. Experienced readers know as soon as they are introduced to both Marie-Laure, a young, French, highly intelligent blind girl, and Werner, a mathematical and mechanical prodigy recruited by the Hitler Youth, that their lives will intersect. We spend about 2/3 of the book waiting for that to happen. While Werner unwittingly helps endanger Marie-Laure’s life, will his past experiences prompt him to help her? I felt like I had been stuck in a time vortex for hundreds of pages before I found out, and while it was all beautifully written, it did, at times, feel exhausting. Perhaps that was Doerr’s intention. Shouldn’t a book about such things feel jarring, uncomfortable, and unreal? I get it, but I feel that this structure was employed with more craft at some points than in others.
Speaking of structure, I absolutely loved the artistry of the sentences in this book. Alas, I do not have my copy handy or I would share some beautiful examples. The short chapters aid in devouring the book and processing the power of the words before moving forward. The imagery – especially sensory imagery, especially as experienced by Marie-Laure – serves as a powerful means of drawing the reader into the characters’ experiences while reminding us to notice the minute details around us. Her loving father, a locksmith by trade, painstakingly crafts two model cities with small wooden replicas of streets and buildings in order to allow his daughter to “see” her world through her fingertips in an inspiring act of fatherly love and devotion.
While Marie-Laure grows up in relative stability, this is not Werner’s experience, though he escapes hard physical labor due to his prodigious engineering skills and his Aryan features. These traits make him a valuable member of the Hitler Youth, even if he does not agree with their tactics and ideology. Nonetheless, we watch Werner struggle with whether to take action to do the right thing or serve as a bystander. At times, he finds himself in both roles, and he carries the weight of his inaction and inability to help his friend and another victim, a young girl, with him as long as he lives. Werner reminds readers that painting all Germans during the war with the same brush does not allow us to honor the special lives affected in the madness of the war on all sides. There were many murderers, torturers, and bystanders, but how many Werners were there?