October 4, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
2014 Scribner
Finished on July 27, 2014
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

A tender exploration of this world’s paradoxes: the beauty of the laws of nature and the terrible ends to which war subverts them; the frailty and the resilience of the human heart; the immutability of a moment and the healing power of time. The language is as expertly crafted as the master locksmith’s models in the story and the setting as intricately evoked. ~ M. L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans

Publisher’s Blurb:

A blind child, Marie-Laure, lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Germans occupy Paris and father and daughter flee—carrying what might be the museum’s most valuable diamond—to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.

In another world, in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes a master at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the Resistance. Werner travels through the heart of Nazi Germany, beyond the Russian front and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Anthony Doerr is the author of the story collections Memory Wall and The Shell Collector, the novel About Grace, and the memoir Four Seasons in Rome. He has won numerous prizes, including four O. Henry Prizes, three Pushcart Prizes, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, The National Magazine Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize.

This may be the best book I’ve read this year.

When I first began reading All the Light We Cannot See, I immediately noticed the short chapters (most averaging only two to four pages in length) and found that I could read longer and later into the night, telling myself, “Just one more chapter.” But then summer arrived with a flurry of activities, travel and a house guest and time slipped away from me, often without a single page read for several days. And then when I did have the time or energy to read, I could only seem to manage a chapter or two, in spite of the author’s gorgeous prose and endearing characters. I began this book on June 15th and did not reach the final page for another six weeks. Had I started this in the dead of winter, I would have easily raced through it in less than a week; it was that good. And yet, in spite of a rather fragmented reading experience, I still choose to give this magnificent novel a perfect 5/5 rating.

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.

Some hurry to bomb shelters. Some tell themselves it is merely a drill. Some linger to grab a blanket or a prayer book or a deck of playing cards.

D-day was two months ago. Cherbourg has been liberated, Caen liberated, Rennes too. Half of western France is free. In the east, the Soviets have retaken Minsk; the Polish Home Army is revolting in Warsaw; a few newspapers have become bold enough to suggest that the tide has turned.

But not here. Not this last citadel at the edge of the continent, this final German strongpoint on the Breton coast.

Here, people whisper, the Germans have renovated two kilometers of subterranean corridors under the medieval walls; they have built new defenses, new conduits, new escape routes, underground complexes of bewildering intricacy. Beneath the peninsular fort of La Cite, across the river from the old city, there are rooms of bandages, rooms of ammunition, even and underground hospital, or so it is believed. There is air-conditioning, a two-hundred-thousand-liter water tank, a direct line to Berlin. There are flame-throwing booby traps, a net of pillboxes with periscopic sights; they have stockpiled enough ordnance to spray shells into the sea all day, every day, for a year.

Here, they whisper, are a thousand Germans ready to die. Or five thousand. Maybe more.

Simple Joys in Fearful Times:
Eggs crack. Butter pops in the hot pan. Her father is telling an abridged story of their flight, train stations, bleating crowds, omitting the stop in Evreux, but soon all of Marie-Laure’s attention is absorbed by the smells blooming around her: egg, spinach, melting cheese.

An omelet arrives. She positions her face over its steam. “May I please have a fork?”

The old woman laughs: a laugh Marie-Laure warms to immediately. In an instant a fork is fitted into her hand.

The eggs taste like clouds. Like spun gold. Madame Manec says, “I think she likes it,” and laughs again.

A second omelet soon appears. Now it is her father who eats quickly. “How about peaches, dear?” murmurs Madame Manec, and Marie-Laure can hear a can opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.

An Occupied Village:
If there are fireflies this summer, they do not come down the rue Vauborel. Now it seems there are only shadows and silence. Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. Madame Guiboux, mother of the shoemaker, has left town. As has old Madame Blanchard. So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished.

A Gray World:
For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory; the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere; bakers’ stalls overflowing with pastries; fish stacked like cordwood in the fishmongers’ booths, the runnels awash in silver scales, alabaster gulls swooping down to carry off entrails. Every corner she turned billowed with color: the greens of leeks, the deep purple glaze of eggplants.

Now her world has turned gray. Gray faces and gray quiet and a gray nervous terror hanging over the queue at the bakery and the only color in the world briefly kindled when Etienne climbs the stairs to the attic, knees cracking, to read one more string of numbers into the ether, to send another of Madame Ruelle’s messages, to play a song. That little attic bursting with magenta and aquamarine and gold for five minutes, and then the radio switches off, and the gray rushes back in, and her uncle stumps down the stairs.

On Bravery:
“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life…”

Final Thoughts:

This gorgeous novel is destined to become a classic! Doerr’s luminescent prose brings to mind Pat Conroy’s lyrical descriptions in Beach Music, another all-time favorite of mine. I loved Doerr’s finely crafted and unpredictable story and look forward to reading some of his other works, as well as listening to the audio edition of All the Light We Cannot See. Yes, another World War II novel, but I strongly encourage everyone to read this dazzling novel. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece.

Go here to listen to Doer’s interview on NPR.


  1. Oh yay!! I loved this book. I'm so glad you did too.

    1. I'm already anxious to read it again, Juli. I got the audio from my library, but will have to listen to it from my phone since the licensing doesn't allow Apple products. :(

  2. You're adding to my list again, Les! I added this one when it first came out, then took it off after reading mixed reviews. But your opinion carries much more weight... and Beach Music is a favorite of mine as well.

    1. This is such a great book, JoAnn. After reading the print version, I downloaded the audio from my library for a second reading, but discovered it's not licensed for Apple products. :( Maybe I'll get the cds from the library and listen in my car.

  3. Oh dear, you know I am not a fiction reader...but this one, well, just the title alone gets me. I can just tell it's a good book.
    By the way, I have a gift for this, I can tell if a book is good by the cover or the title. It's done me no good in life but it's true.

    1. Kay, I think this is one you'll enjoy since it's historical fiction. It's so beautifully written and I know I'll read it again in the coming years. Hope you enjoy it!

  4. "This may be the best book I've read this year" had me instantly. I checked this book out from the library in the summer, but with school starting, a due date to return it to the library, and the now old fear I have about war (with Daniel being a Marine) caused me to return it unread. I should check it out again; love your review.

    1. I understand your fear about war, but I do think you'll fall in love with Doerr's prose. Such beautiful writing about such a terrible time in our history.

  5. Once again, I have the book, but don't know if I'll get to it any time soon. I need the audio! :) LOVE seeing 5/5!

    1. As anxious as I am to listen to the audio (for a re-read), I would recommend reading this in print the first time around. The narrative isn't linear and I can imagine it might be a bit confusing if you're listening, rather than reading. Just my two cents.

  6. Just went and added this to my book clubs calendar for next year!

    1. This will make for a great discussion! I'm still thinking about the characters...

  7. This is our book for the next book club meeting. I recommended it, and had a bit of push-back - "not another WWII book!" - but I think it is so good - and hope for a lively discussion!

    1. I'll bet you have a great discussion!


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