Book review: All the Light We Cannot See

Photo courtesy of Barnes and Noble.

Dozens of novels centered on World War II fill the historical fiction market, but few are as memorable or as meaningful as “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Book store shelves are packed with half-despairing stories set in occupied France, pre-war Germany, post-war Poland. Even the film industry is full of war-torn action films set in that era.

While it’s difficult to put a finger on why World War II has been so popularized, it is apparent there is a clear line between authors who’ve simply jumped on the bandwagon and those who are genuinely passionate about the subject.

There is no doubt that Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” is such an impassioned writer. The novel was recently re-released in paperback, making it more accessible to those who couldn’t afford the $25 hardback copy when it was first published in 2014.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a beacon in  the darkness of its genre, much like the many lighthouses of its setting on the war-torn coast of France.

It’s hard to walk away from most World War II books feeling anything but heavy; the sober subject lends itself to a certain darkness and often elicits deeply upsetting plotlines and despairing narratives. While World War II is indeed a tragic subject, Anthony Doerr’s magnum opus shows us that sometimes there is more to sadness than mere sadness.


Marie-Laure remembers what it was like to see — to walk the streets of Paris with her father without needing a cane, or his hand, to guide her.

Now, at the age of six, she is blind — her eyes made useless by cataracts. Her father builds elaborate model maps of the city to help her memorize its streets and teaches her to seek wonder in the smallest of tactile things: shells, rocks and sand.

When her father is arrested years later, Marie-Laure is forced to move to the remote island of Saint-Malo and live with her eccentric uncle, Etienne, as the enemy slowly tears her country apart.

On the other side of the war, a young and brilliant German named Werner grows up in an orphanage with his beloved sister, Jutta.

When his genius for radios draws attention to him, he is recruited by the Third Reich, separated from his sister, and sent to a boarding school that will test both his mettle and his natural inclination toward compassion.

As evil closes in on both the main characters, circumstance — or perhaps fate — leads them toward each other in a pace-by-pace narrative style that will keep you glued to the pages of the novel.

Doerr uses repeated, poetic descriptions, clever dialogue and blatantly nonlinear narrative to make every word of the story more precious and distinct.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is full of a visceral sort of compassion: the reader has no choice but to step into the shoes of Marie-Laure and the well-worn boots of Werner. The novel implores you to feel both the love and the pain to which these characters are subject.

The history of “All the Light We Cannot See” is sympathetic to those who lived through that time, but the fictional aspect doesn’t limit itself to melancholy alone.

In this valuable piece of historical fiction, there is also a touch of magic, a dash of superstition and a good dose of the supernatural.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is like a musty old tome with a gold-embossed cover, like a muddy river stream with shining rocks at the bottom. Its subject is shell-shocking, but the way it narrates that subject is lovely.

The novel’s theme is clear: there can be goodness in wartime, and there can be joy amidst sadness. Like the story’s elusive diamond — the Sea of Flames — the novel itself represents the incredible duality of existence: the shining, unspeakable beauty of the holy fighting perilously against the chaos and despair of a fallen earth.


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