All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr – Book Review

I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

All The Light We Cannot See

All The Light We Cannot See has already received immense praise and picked up the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I was unbelievably pleased to receive a copy for review and would like to thank the publishers and NetGalley again. This book offers a stunning snapshot of war, told through the eyes of a blind French girl called Marie-Laure and German orphan Werner.

There’s been so many WWII books written, particularly in the last few years – the topic seems to be one which both horrifies and fascinates in equal measure – but this for me is the best war novel I’ve read, and has the feel of an instant classic.

It follows its protagonists for over two decades, providing an insight into their childhoods in their respective home countries leading up to the war and the war itself. Their two stories offer almost opposite ends of the spectrum of war although both of their lives are very much shaped by it. Werner grows up in a children’s home and sees his entry into the Hitler Youth his only way to escape an inevitable life in the mines, whereas Marie-Laure’s childhood is relatively comfortable; despite her disability she leads  a content life in Paris with a close relationship with her father, until the Nazi invasion threatens to tear her existence apart. The two don’t meet until the final third of the novel, but invisible lines and connections run throughout their stories, although it can take a while to find and realise them.

The story is told using beautiful, emotional prose packed into short, snappy chapters with a regularly changing viewpoint and timeframe – the writing technique seems to have split some reviewers but I personally enjoyed this format, it kept me engaged. I think if the chapters had been longer I may have begun to struggle with the poetic prose, but the switching between points of view made the novel much more compelling.

The writer weaves themes of philosophy, myth and science throughout the story; Werner specialises in mechanics and goes on to work for the Nazis building transmitters, whilst Marie-Laure’s life is shadowed by the myth of the Sea Of Flames, a cursed stone with magical powers. When Doerr explains the thought process behind this novel’s beautiful title, it offers a little more insight into all of these interconnected themes. “The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.”

And he certainly opened my eyes with this book. It’s the sort of novel I could read again and again and discover something new every time.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Drama, Historical, Other Countries

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