All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, New York, 2014
I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It’s beautifully constructed, like an intricate puzzle box. All the pieces fit together with precision and artistry. But it just didn’t move me.
A blind girl named Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father in 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, taking refuge in the home of her great-uncle in the walled port city of Saint Malo. They carry with them a jewel, the Sea of Flames, a legendary diamond with mythical powers. But are they a blessing or a curse?
Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner discovers he has a gift for building and repairing radios. Soon he is drafted into a military academy to hone his skills and from there into the army to help the Nazis detect and shut down Resistance radio transmissions.
All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of their lives, how they are swept up and eventually brought together by the great historical torrents of their time.
It’s about people trying to do the right things under excruciating circumstances. For a few, courage and resistance come naturally, instinctively. Others must overcome fears and phobias before they can act. Some just need to survive long enough so they can grow up enough to even recognize what the right thing is. And many more must seek some measure of redemption after the fact for the evil they have committed or through inaction allowed to be committed.
I think the book is also about fate. Is our fate determined by our actions, or by supernatural forces, or by random chance? And how can you tell? There are examples of all three, or at least the possibility of them, throughout the story. The book is inconclusive on this, and maybe that’s the point.
Anthony Doerr shows us a panorama of wartime Europe, from the poverty of German coal miners to the opulent apartments of upper class city-dwellers in Berlin, from the specimen-packed Museum of Natural History in Paris to the snail-encrusted outer walls of Saint Malo, and overshadowing all of it, the brutality and destruction of World War II. His imagery is vivid and evocative without being ostentatiously “great writing,” though there were some scenes I found especially striking.
In the end though I just didn’t connect emotionally with the story or the characters. I’m not sure why. It’s a long novel and I got to the end feeling detached and thinking, “Did I miss something?” Was there some detail I skimmed over that would have pulled me in, or an “aha!” moment that would have caused me to see the story in a completely different light? I kept waiting for something like that to happen but it never did.