There’s a time and a place for easy chick lit, and there’s also a time and a place for slow moving emotional epics. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr definitely falls into the second category, full of bittersweet harmonies and poetry to make a lyricist cry.
All The Light We Cannot See follows the seemingly disconnected stories of a blind Parisian girl named Marie-Waure and an aspiring German scientist named Werner. Though they live in completely different countries and have never met one another, the story manages to find all the links in their shared experiences of World War 2; whether it’s through snatches of radio or words stamped in braille across a Jules Verne novel.
The story begins in 1944 with a captivating cinematic experience, where the city Marie and Werner lives in is being bombed, setting the tone of constantly looming danger over the story. Doerr chooses then to return to peaceful times in 1934, where Marie-Laure’s sight begins to fail and her father, king of the keys at a museum, starts constructing little models of Paris to help her navigate the sprawling metropolis. All the while, white haired Werner has just discovered his talent for tech, taking apart radios and putting them back together; drawing the attention of the Nazi regime for his scientific genius.
Both of their worlds are turned upside down as the second world war really begins to get going, Marie-Laure and her father (who may or may not have been entrusted with one of the most valuable gemstones in the world) flee to Saint-Malo to stay with their eccentric relative Etienne. Werner instead is conscripted into a horrific school for elite Nazi youth, where he is pushed to the limit and is eventually transferred to Saint-Malo years later where his and Marie-Laure’s paths cross.
There’s certainly a reason that this novel has dominated the New York Times Bestseller List for weeks on end: Doerr’s writing spills relentless emotional energy across every page and the story is magnetic from start to end, well-deserving of the term page-turner. He somehow manages to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary; through Werner’s eyes, wires and radios become as mystical and necessary as breathing, and the collision of the natural and the technological becomes a way to reclaim innocence and passion lost in the face of war.
The story’s gorgeous attention to character and detail is enrapturing – there’s never a moment where you’re not thinking of Marie-Waure or Werner, regardless of whose chapter you’re in. Quite possibly the standout section of the novel is when Werner attends the state-sponsored Nazi school for elites, where Doerr tries to explore how and why people are capable of such horrific acts with chillingly precise writing; perhaps some of the most understated of the whole book. As one of the characters helplessly puts it, “How do you ever know if you are doing the right thing?”
While the story sometimes suffers from Doerr’s penchant for purple prose, it’s not distracting enough to keep you from experiencing real moments of unexpected poetry, like when Marie-Waure describes the differences between a miniature and a real city or when Werner turns on a radio for the first time to hear a symphony. Doerr’s book is undoubtedly a sensitive recovery of ravaged beauty and courage, uncovering the impossible light in the darkest of times and well worth the read.