Book Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

Today I share with you my review of this immersive vision of life among the French Resistance in the 2nd World War.

Book Cover: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review

The story of All the Light We Cannot See tells of Marie Laure, a blind girl living in Paris in the 1930s with her father, a museum locksmith and miniaturist. Marie Laure’s father creates a model of the city to help his daughter make her way around the streets; and every birthday his gift to her includes a puzzle box which needs skill and ingenuity for her to open, and find the gift within. Thus she gains skills in orienteering and in construction projects requiring dexterity and ingenuity; both of which will be invaluable to her survival, not only in peace, but during the coming war, the Nazi occupation of France, and especially when she finds herself alone and vulnerable in St Malo during Allied bombing.

The story is told in two time frames, early 1940s, and then on to the final stages of the War, and also shifts back and forth between Marie Laure’s story and that of Werner, a German boy, who is an expert at constructing radios, and who is compelled to join the Military Training Academy for young people, whose methods are often cruel and ruthless and sadistic. We meet Frederick, Werner’s friend at the academy, who openly defies the cruelty, and suffers for it. Ultimately Werner and Marie Laure will meet; grief, tragedy but also love and hope is ahead for them.

The novel creates for its readers an immersive experience, of what it would feel like to be part of the French Resistance in St Malo. I was totally absorbed in Marie Laure’s world, her challenges and threats, her relationships, her courage and resourcefulness.

Werner too aroused my compassion and I understood what it must have been like to be swept along by the Nazi machine, compelled to participate. Even though his sister Jutta shows evidence of a free spirit, people like her within Nazi Germany would have needed to be extremely discrete and subtle about their dissent.

I found the story slow-moving to start with and difficult to get into; then, when the War starts, it becomes totally immersive, as young Marie Laure and her father escape from Paris to her great uncle Etienne’s house in St Malo, while 8 year old Werner in Berlin with his sister Jutta discovers how to make a radio.

In St Malo Marie Laure and her father are cared for by the kindly Madame Manech who gathers together a group of ladies to resist the Nazi occupiers by ingenious means. Madame Manech sets about persuading Etienne to use the one remaining radio in the house – which he has cunningly hidden in the attic, away from the Nazis – to transmit messages to the Allies from the Resistance.

The reader needs to get used to the switches of time-scale from 1940 and then on to 1944 when the Americans are bombing St Malo in a last attempt to flush the Nazi occupiers out, and Werner is hunting for illegal radio operators in occupied France, with orders from the Nazis to kill all those he finds in possession of radios.

In 1944 Marie Laure, blind and totally reliant on her own strength, courage and instincts, is trapped in the house in St Malo. The people who have loved and protected her are absent: Madame Manech has died; her father has been seized by the Germans whilst visiting his Paris Museum; and her great-uncle Etienne has vanished.

Back in 1940 Frederick invites Werner to join him on a visit to his mother at his privileged and wealthy home in Berlin. The two boys are friends; and yet Werner feels powerless to help when Frederick is persecuted for voicing his dissent from the Nazi creed.

In 1944 Werner is told he has been at the Military Training Academy under false pretences, and we fear he will be killed; instead he is sent to “a special technology division of the Wehrmacht.” Werner is pressed into service in France, tracking illegal radio transmissions by members of the Resistance, using his transceiver.

From this point the story moves forward relentlessly, with high emotional stakes and jeopardy for both Marie Laure and Werner. How they come together is something you will discover when you read the book.

This is the kind of book which is so immersive you are with the people of the story, experiencing the danger and the emotional and psychological challenges alongside them; and indeed the kind of book which has you scurrying for Google to refresh yourself on such areas of knowledge as the Allied bombing of St Malo; the activities of the French Resistance; and the shocking facts about systematic rape of German girls and women by Russian soldiers for three years after the 2nd World War ended.

The story shows the resilience of the human spirit and the prevalence of love, goodness and kindness, along with courage and ingenuity; whilst also inevitably opening our eyes to the sheer wickedness and evil of war.

A very highly recommended book.