All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr may have suffered from unrealistically high expectations. I’ve been waiting to read it for months, I’ve heard great things about it from a number of different people, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Don’t get me wrong. This was a well-written and haunting book. However, after all the hype, I was expecting it to be one of my favorites of the year.
World War II is the backdrop for our two young protagonists. Marie Laure is a young French girl who lives with her father in Paris. Her father works at the Natural History Museum and she spends a great deal of time with him at work. When she loses her eyesight, her father adapts, making a model of her Parisian neighborhood so Marie can find her way around. Werner Pfennig and his sister are orphans, living in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany. He is gifted with an uncanny knack for all things mechanical and teaches himself to be something of a radio expert.
The beginning of World War II hits the children differently. Marie-Laure flees Paris to St.-Malo on the western coast of France. Her father may or may not be carrying a priceless diamond for the museum, and Marie forges a new life in a new city with her Great Uncle Etienne. Werner, on the other hand, is accepted in a German academy intent on forging loyal soldiers for Hitler. Cruelty seems to be the order of the day for crafting soldiers, and that academy is one sick and twisted school. With Werner’s gift for electronics, he is given a number of privileges but not everyone is so lucky.
I often judge books on how emotionally connected I feel with the characters and story, and there were times when this book really worked for me. However, there were also times when I could not forget that I was reading a book, and when the story felt manufactured to emphasize its point. I also had a hard time connecting with the mythical elements brought into the story. I still found this book to be very well-written and memorable, it just didn’t always feel real. Also, I wish the author had not jumped around in time as much as he did. The book begins in 1944 and then jumps back, so I spent much of the book trying to figure out how we would get back to that point. I liked the characters more than enough to hear their story straight through from the beginning. The jumping around just took me out of the story. Still highly recommended.
I was going to try to tie these quotes into the rest of my review along with a meaningful discussion of the ‘light’ metaphor. Instead, here is a lazy list of some of the quotes that I felt define this book:
“The air swarms with so much that is invisible! How he wishes he had eyes to see the ultraviolet, eyes to see the infrared, eyes to see radio waves crowding the darkening sky, flashing through the walls of the house.” (57)
“After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.” (211)
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.” (223)
“He has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.” (251)
“What he feels on the worst days of that relentless winter–while rust colonizes the truck and rifles and radios, while German divisions retreat all around them–is a deep scorn for all the humans they pass.” (355)
“Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?” (365)
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” (408)
“All your life you wait, and then it finally comes, and are you ready?” (465)
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