“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
-Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See”
Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 48
This was one of those books that everyone in my book club independently put on their challenge list at the beginning of the year. It’s that good. However, I’m ashamed to say this book suffered a bit from start reading, get distracted by shiny things, then pick it up again weeks later.. it is in no way a reflection of how incredible this book is. This post could consist of only, “just go read this book” and that would be everything you need to know about it.
The story is told through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, and from multiple perspectives. Marie-Laure is a young girl in France on the verge of World War 2. Her father is a locksmith at a museum and she accompanies him every day to work, where she is treated to an infinite world of knowledge and discovery. When she is young she loses her vision but is incredibly resilient, largely due to how her father raises her. He builds Marie-Laure a model replica of the town they live in which she learns through touch. Werner is a young German boy, hundreds of miles away, growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister Jutta in a poor working class town. Years ago they lost their father to a coal mining accident, and fate seems set that in a few years Werner will have no choice but to work in the same mines that killed his father. He has a knack for electronics though and is soon fixing things through the whole town. At night, he and his sister listen to an unknown French man teach science lessons on an old beat up radio, and for those brief periods of respite, they experience the awe and wonder of the world beyond their reach. Doerr is a master at weaving through each narrative- the jumps between perspectives and time points feels fluid, never jerky.
As the war reaches them, both Marie-Laure and Werner’s worlds are shattered. When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to evacuate, and carry with them an important mission from the museum. Werner is recruited to a school for elite young German soldiers due to his aptitude for engineering. In very different ways they experience the cruelty of war, the tangible displacement and danger and the intangible shifts in relationships and understanding. One of the most incredible parts of the book is the way we experience the world through Marie-Laure. Despite being blind she very much sees the world around her, the way people walk when they’re scared or excited, the smell of the sea, the feeling of the wind just before it rains. I wondered if in some ways she sees the world far better than I ever have. Werner too has an incredible talent for truly seeing people, their weaknesses, fears, the quiet beauty in them that no one else seems to notice.
There’s a meditation on bravery throughout the book that Doerr explores with an incredible amount of grace. As Marie-Laure learns to navigate through the world, literally and figuratively, she does not hold back. In Saint-Malo she joins the underground resistance to the German occupation, retrieving messages concealed in bread from the bakery, to be broadcast on the illegal transmitter in the attic of her great uncle’s house. Repeatedly she’s told how brave she is, for her it is just life. She knows no other way. Werner is drilled about bravery at school but he begins to question the kind of bravery they teach. Is it brave to attack the weakest and most vulnerable around us, enemy and countryman alike? He struggles with this and is confronted with more as a young boy than most of us face in a lifetime. Through both Marie-Laure and Werner their humanity is revealed through how they traverse the inhumanity of war.
Book endings are notoriously difficult to nail, and this one was perfect. The way all the narratives come together (and those that don’t) say something about what war does to us. 500+ pages later this book sent me into the affliction known as book hangover.. curl up and set aside several hours for this one.