All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Historical Novel
Hardcover Edition: 530 pages
Source: Personal Copy

The detail in this novel mesmerizes the reader, even overwhelms. The reader may feel overwhelmed by detail similarly to how the characters feel overwhelmed by their wartime experiences. The novel is carefully structured, and its beautifully composed sentences stun the reader’s senses with metaphors honed to a fresh edge. “Berlin. The very name like two sharp bells of glory.” “The sky drops silver threads of sleet.”

Marie-Laurie is a blind girl from Paris who lives with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. As the Nazi occupation tightens, they flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Breton Coast.

The story also follows a talented German orphan Werner, with a keen understanding of transmitters and electrical circuits, and he, too, eventually arrives at Saint-Malo. Various threads of the storyline connect these two and intertwine to produce interesting minor characters and aspects of the wartime experience less well known to many readers.

There are times when the pace slows. This writer challenges the reader’s intellect. There are blurred lines about what is real and what is hoped for. But no reader need complain about the necessity to think in the midst of such lovely writing. The short chapters and white space are appreciated.

Some reviewers see Werner as the sustaining character. But to this reader, the heroine Marie-Laurie is the light of the book. She experiences joy at the beach. The mist and the feel of the sea creatures calm her. In a small grotto near the sea, she is alive and autonomous. “….the tide is rising. She finds barnacles, an anemone as soft as silk; she sets her fingers as lightly as she can on a Nassarius.” She is nurtured by reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from huge brail volumes her father and uncle gifted her. She develops the strength of a whelk.

Light is darkness and darkness is light, these themes enrich this story, providing a light to understanding. The detail of the six story house where this girl and her father live in Saint-Malo, the contained spaces of the citadel, and the models Marie-Laurie’s father makes for her combine to aid in understanding the perimeters of a life without sight.

The story dazzles. If you are a reader who likes challenge and a fresh look at an era you thought you knew well, this is the book for you. It is a book to keep and a book to reread.

I’m grateful to the fellow reader who encouraged me to stick with this story and to appreciate it.