Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr crafted the best book I’ve read in recent memory. In All the Light We Cannot See he created interesting characters, a lot of tension and—something lacking in modern novels—an outstanding story. I can’t recall reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel this compelling.

The story took place in France during World War II. Doerr presented dual story lines which detailed the lives of a young German radio operator (Werner) and blind French teenager (Marie-Laure). Werner’s skill at assembling radios saved him from a life either working in the mines or worse in Nazi Germany. Marie-Laure became the center of an international search for a jewel known as the “Sea of Flames”; the latter which possessed mystical powers. The author kept me anxious as the plot progressed towards their tales intersecting.

I liked the way Doerr detailed Werner’s indoctrination into the Wermacht. During this period, Werner befriended a young man named Frederick while attending a military school. Their friendship became the most poignant I’ve ever read in a work of fiction. Had it not been for the war, Frederick would’ve studied birds and Werner studied to become an engineer. The former had philosophic tendencies. During one of their conversations, Frederick pointed out, “’Your problem, Werner’, says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.’” (Page 233)

I also found the exchanges between Marie-Laure and her father moving. At times they reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s dialog between father and son in The Road. Here’s an example.

“How much food do we have, Papa?”

“Some. Are you still hungry?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to save the food.”

“Okay. Let’s save the food. Let’s be quiet now and rest.” (Page 89)

The author also showed an excellent use of language throughout the book. He utilized a number of literary techniques. He included alliteration in the phrase, “hand-hewed beams, hauled here.” (Page 14)

Doerr added some great descriptions. Here’s what happened to Werner during an attack.

The bombing seems to have destroyed the hearing in his left ear. His right, as far as he can tell, is gradually coming back. Beyond the ringing, he begins to hear. (Page 204)

Werner termed Marie-Laure’s eyes: “Beautiful ugly.” (Page 469)

            The author even expressed public relations methods in poetic terms. Since the PR in question involved Germany’s propaganda machine, that was an accomplishment.

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right. (Page 63)

He even utilized synesthesia. I cringe when many authors do. Most times it reads like someone inserting it into the text to sound smart. Because of the protagonist’s blindness, the expression: “She can hear him smiling” worked very well. (Page 45)

I found one weakness in the book. The character of Sergeant Major von Rumpel seemed contrived. His mission was to locate the “Sea of Flames”. Legend had it that whoever possessed the jewel would never die. Wouldn’t you know it, during his quest for this artifact the Sergeant Major’s doctor diagnosed him with terminal cancer. I understand the author wanted to inject an element of tension into the book. After all, the supposed owner of the jewel was a blind teenage girl. While the author did his best in presenting this story line, I thought von Rumpel a caricature. Even the dramatic confrontation scene seemed cliché.

At the end of the book, Werner’s sister lamented, “What the war did to dreamers.” (Page 506) Fortunately for fans of great fiction, it inspired Anthony Doerr to write a masterpiece.

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