All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published 2014 by Fourth Estate
Number of pages 545
My copy: Kindle
Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.
Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.
The book kicks off in 1944 and, through extremely short chapters, we are introduced to Marie Laure and Werner, who both find themselves in desperate situations. Marie Laure is alone in her great uncle’s large house – as she is blind she has been unable to read the notices telling civilians to leave the walled city of St Malo. Werner, meanwhile, is trapped nearby in the cellar of a hotel which has been wrecked by bombers. The book then skips back four years and we get the build up to these events, still in short chapters and alternating between the two characters – with the very occasional input of another character. Throughout this long novel, each part of the book is broken up with another quick trip forward to 1944.
In many ways, I found this a hard book to read. Although the writing is straightforward, and the novel has very short chapters, it feels quite heavy and relentless at times, and the constant flitting between the two characters – and occasionally others – can make it difficult to get into if read in small doses. There is also little dialogue and, at times, a lot of description.
Despite this, I found the book to be quite brilliant. I realised it needed to be read in long sittings, and not just a few pages snatched here and there. In fact, I read the final quarter of the book in one stint and this really helped me to get into the characters and their stories, and I was utterly gripped. The occasional jump forward to 1944 made the book very tense to read, and the horrors of war increase as the book goes on. As I say, this is not an easy read although there are beautiful moments too – such as Marie Laure’s relationship with her great uncle, her fascination with shells and the relationship between Werner and his sister.
I took to the two main characters immediately and found myself rooting for them throughout. They were both in terrible and seemingly hopeless situations, but never gave up. Marie Laure in particular is extremely intelligent and independent, despite the hardships life has thrown at her, and she is a really endearing character.
The book gives details of war in quite a detached and unemotional way, which somehow makes the experiences of the characters even more brutal. The novel gives a real sense of the futility and human suffering caused by war, yet it never preaches or gets sentimental.
Overall I thought this was an amazing novel. It is beautiful yet bleak, depressing yet uplifting all at once, and it doesn’t feel the need to hold back in its depictions of war and brutality. I did seriously consider giving it 10 out of 10, but I was rather mean and took off one mark for it being overly wordy at times, and a little too long overall.
My rating: 9 out of 10