My rating: 4 stars
Novels set during the Second World War tend to appeal to me. So, it was with high expectations that I started reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It explores how people are still capable of acts of kindness even when they are taught to hate and be violent. Through the use of alternating timelines, the reader is introduced to Marie-Laure and Werner, who have their lives affected by the brutality of war.
The narration of the story starts in 1944. Half of western France has already been liberated from the Nazi grip, but Saint-Malo is still under an air-attack. Marie-Laure, a blind 16-year-old girl, lives in rue Vauborel and owns a model of the city. Werner Pfennig is at the time a private in the German army who is staying at the Hôtel des Abeilles.
We then travel back in time. Ten years earlier, Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who works as a locksmith at the Natural History Museum. One day she does a guided tour at the museum and is told the story of the Sea of Flames, featuring quite a valuable diamond. She is losing her eyesight and one month later she is blind. The way in which going blind affects Marie’s daily life is meticulously described.
“Spaces she once knew as familiar (…) have become labyrinths bristling with hazards. Drawers are never where they should be. The toilet is an abyss. A glass of water is too near, too far; her fingers too big, always too big.”
Her father builds her a miniature of her Paris neighbourhood so she can learn how to get home without seeing. But, when the war starts and the Germans bomb and invade France, Marie and her father have to leave Paris. Doerr’s prose easily conveys the sense of confusion Marie feels as she is rushed to a train station without being able to see.
Werner grows up in Zollverein, Germany, a town known for its mines. He and his younger sister are being raised at an orphanage. One day he finds a broken radio and manages to fix it. His impressive capability to repair radios becomes well known around town and many people start visiting the Children’s House looking for “the radio repairman”. At the same time the Nazi Party rises to power. Werner’s skills attract the attention of the Hitler’s Youth, and he starts chasing a life away from the mines.
The story focuses foremost on Marie and Werner and the people who live with them. The connection between the two characters is established through a radio programme and a transmitter. More characters are introduced throughout the book, though, and some take centre stage in a few chapters.
The way the novel is structured – really short chapters (sometimes just one page long), at first one focusing on Marie and the other on Werner, alternately – enables to perceive similarities between the two characters, such as the curiosity to know more about issues that catch their attention. But it also makes it difficult to get invested in their story, since it feels fragmented and disjointed. It’s like we are being told a story through snippets of information, which, despite being beautifully written, are not as gripping as I was expecting.
The short chapters are grouped in parts, set in different years, which begin to converge until there is only one timeline. The first timeline follows a specific day in 1944, and the second begins before the start of the war and later merges with the first one. This is possible because the parts set at the end of the war span a shorter period of time. So, throughout the majority of the book, thanks to the alternating timelines, we are revealed little future plot points ahead of them happening. It is when the two timelines finally converge that the story becomes more gripping and the message being conveyed gets even more clear.
All the Light We Cannot See remembers us that some of those who fight in wars are just ordinary people who were dragged into a situation they didn’t have a say in. Young people were being taught to hate and blindly obey, while believing they were following a path they chose themselves. However, they were not really living their own lives until the moment they chose to do what was right morally. During a war, people are capable of the worst actions, regardless of the side they are fighting for. But there are still acts of kindness.
The destruction caused by war is described in detail and is visually impressive.
“Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky.”
Although at times the novel feels a bit dry, there are quite a few heart-breaking moments that paint it with emotion. If the plot had been structured in a different way, I believe that I would have loved this book by Anthony Doerr as much as I was expecting to, since the story ended up being quite inspiring.