Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See has been on a lot of lists recently and I can certainly see why. Bear with me – I finished it a couple months ago, but have been too busy to write up any of my books, so I might not recall all the reasons it’s so wonderful. The novel centers around two main characters. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a young French girl who happens to be blind, and lives with her father in Paris in the early 1940s. Werner Pfennig is a young German orphan living with his younger sister and many other children in an orphanage in a mining town. Both children grow up experiencing the horrors of World War II in different ways – one as a scared citizen in an occupied France, the other as a confused and scared young soldier in the occupying force.
I LOVED this book. I know there’ve been mixed reviews all over, including here on Cannonball. However, since it hits all my marks (WWII, France, coming-of-age, melancholy, quirk), I was bound to at least give it four stars. I loved all the characters. Marie-Laure goes blind at quite a young age, and with the help of her father manages to learn her corner of Paris through the use of craftily constructed scale models of her surrounding neighborhoods. She spends her days with her father at the natural history museum, developing a keen interest in aquatic life, insects, and pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She develops an intense love for Jules Verne and devours books as fast as her father can get them. When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the seaside town Saint-Malo and the safety of her eccentric (and agoraphobic) great-uncle Etienne’s home. Werner is a lovely young man unfortunate enough to have been born in Germany at a terrible time for good people. With little choice left to him in life as an orphan, Werner trades on his skills at electronics to achieve a post in a military school for boys, much to the chagrin of his Nazi-hating sister. The alternative being that he’d begin working in the mines where his own father met his death is unbearable for him and so he does his best to go with the flow, despite a suspicion that he isn’t really on the right side of the war. Some of the secondary characters are equally intriguing: Etienne, the quirky great-uncle who has a giant radio in his attic and a vivid imagination with which he entertains his great –niece and Volkheimer, the strangely quiet but incredibly intimidating German soldier who knows a lot more about life than he lets on.
Doerr’s writing is lovely. I read this book and it seemed like a movie was playing in my head every time I picked it up; the imagery is vivid but not overly flowery. Some might find the skipping around in time a little confusing but I didn’t. I really can’t think of anything negative to say about this book. The length might be off-putting. In fact, it’s why my book club was a little hesitant to choose it for our April selection. However, the chapters are short, pages aren’t filled to the brim, and it’s kind of a page turner, especially at the end. Give it a shot and don’t be scared of the length, it’s an amazing book.