It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Taking place in the 1940s, we follow the journey of two young children through flashbacks leading up to the bombing of Saint-Malo, France a few days after D-Day.
There are three main narratives through-out the story. One of which is that of an orphan boy who falls in love with radios at a young age. He and his sister become fascinated by the radio, listening to a man inspire them to explore. Werner Pfenning is one day asked by a town official to fix a radio. Thinking it will be his way out of having to work in the mines one day. Instead, it brings him to a military school for Hitler Youth.
The second narrative touches on how so much of Paris’s history and culture was almost lost as a result of the war. Places like the Louvre and the Museum of Natural History had very short notice to flee the town with some of the biggest treasures, paintings and gems prior to the invasion. In Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”, Marie-Laure LeBlanc was a normal child growing up in Paris with her father, who was a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Having lost her sight at the age of six, her father works hard to fabricate mini replicas of Paris so Marie-Laure can navigate through her life independently.
However, in June of 1940, Paris was invaded, forcing Marie-Laure and her father to seek refuge with family based in Saint-Malo. Unbeknownst to Marie-Laure, her father was entrusted to bring a potentially very rare and valuable gemstone out of the museum and to somewhere safer. One day, her father is sent away and does not return.
Marie-Laure then becomes involved in the French Resistance, heading to the local bakery where special codes were hidden in a loaf of bread, delivering this information to her uncle for him to broadcast messages out to other fighters. Meanwhile, Werner is learning the cruelties of Germany and earning himself a special place in the fight. Through his radio skills, Werner is able to assist the German soldiers to locate those in the Resistance.
Through their flashbacks, we learn the complexities of the war from the unique perspectives of French Marie-Laure and German Werner. At its climax, the paths and Marie-Laure and Werner cross, bringing the novel to its third storyline. As Werner enter Saint-Malo in his troops, a disaster renders him trapped with only his radio as solace. He is able to hear a story being read by a girl, also trapped, but as a result of the opposite side of the war.
“All the Light We Cannot See” isn’t a light beach read, rather a book filled with heavy topics, horrors and more. But you walk away from the book thinking about this tragic time in history from a new perspective – that of an orphan boy celebrated for his smarts but forced into ultimately helping unthinkable evils.
This type of book isn’t one that I typically pick up for my reading list, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for a book that will be hard to put down. Anthony Doerr has a way of captivating you with his words, and every chapter almost feels poetic.