Writing a review of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is by no means the most necessary thing which I have ever done. Surely, most people have read it by now; indeed, it has over 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads, and a whole host of reviews – over 80,000 at the time of writing. I came to the novel late; it received its Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and I only picked it up in the summer of 2021, after receiving it as a gift. I had wanted to get to the book much sooner but, for one reason or another, I had simply neglected to seek out a copy – as it so often goes for a bookworm, of course.
All the Light We Cannot See is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, and takes two characters as its focus. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a young girl living in Paris with her father, who lost her sight at the age of six; the world since has been ‘full of mazes’. To still allow her some dependence, her father painstakingly built her a wooden model of their neighbourhood ‘to teach her the way home’. When she first loses her sight, something which happens rather gradually, Doerr describes the way in which: ‘Spaces she once knew as familiar – the four-room flat she shares with her father, the little tree-lined square at the end of their street – have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers are too big, always too big.’ Doerr is sensitive to the constant adjustments which Marie-Laure has to make, and the way in which her life has changed so dramatically.
Marie-Laure is drawn, eventually, to the other protagonist of the novel, a German youth named Werner Pfennig. He and his younger sister have spent much of their life in an orphanage, but due to his prowess with fixing radios and the like, he is offered a place at a prestigious technical school. Werner is sharp and clever, and one cannot help but feel for him throughout.
The novel opens in August 1944. At this time, a cascade of leaflets are dropped across Paris; they ‘blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops’, and urge all residents to ‘depart immediately to open country.’ Although settled in their Paris apartment, the advancement of the Nazis, and their invasion of the French capital city, causes them to flee to Brittany, to the seaside home of a reclusive family member, in Saint-Malo. When Marie-Laure and her father reach the walled city, much of France has already been liberated from Nazi control. Saint-Malo, though, remains ‘the last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.’ Her father, who works as the custodian of thousands of keys at the Natural History Museum in Paris, is tasked with taking what might be an irreplaceable precious stone out of the city with him, for safekeeping.
I really admire the way in which the author perceives the world; he writes, for instance, of Marie-Laure’s sight loss: ‘Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color… She has no memories of her mother but imagines her as white, a soundless brilliance. Her father radiates a thousand colors, opal, strawberry red, deep russet, wild green… He is an olive green when he talks to a department head, an escalating series of oranges when he speaks to Mademoiselle Fleury from the greenhouses, a bright red when he tries to cook. He glows sapphire when he sits over his workbench in the evenings, humming almost inaudibly as he works.’
All the Light We Cannot See was Doerr’s second novel, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece. The novel is a highly atmospheric one from its very beginning, and Doerr is excellent at setting up various scenes. At the outset, for example, Marie-Laure ‘hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes growls.’ The novel is filled to the brim with so much detail, both sensual and historically accurate. There is so much evocative, luscious prose here, which one can really sink their teeth into. Everything has been so carefully considered, and there is a reason for every single detail included.
All the Light We Cannot See was a particularly poignant tome to come to during a pandemic, when we have seen so many selfless acts perpetuated in all corners of society, and all parts of the world. Doerr is so aware of the lengths people will go to for others, and the many kindnesses which we can extend to others.
I found All the Light We Cannot See to be one of the most immersive novels that I have picked up in ages. I loved the use of short chapters, and the way in which we follow Marie-Laure and Werner in turn, and in such a fluid manner. I also really admired the way in which Doerr chose to hop back and forth in time, an effective technique to show the histories of his characters. The use of parallel stories here works wonderfully, and I felt so absorbed within the worlds of both Marie-Laure and Werner. I’m sure you’ve probably already read it, but if not, I would urge you to pick up this glorious, achingly beautiful, and unforgettable novel, which has a real adventure at its heart.