Monday, June 8, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

“Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it?”  All the Light We Cannot See takes a good look at this question and how it applied during one of the darkest hours of our history, World War II.  If you were a German living in Hitler’s Reign, should you go along with what was happening because it was what everyone else was doing and what was expected? Where does your morality lie?

Sometimes you read a book that has such an amazing story that it will stay with you always.  All The Light We Cannot See is one of these books.  I had a hard time putting this book down and stayed up too late Friday night to finish it up and have a good weep.

All the Light We Cannot See is set during WWII in occupied France and also in Germany.  Marie Laure is a young blind girl growing up in France.  Her father is the locksmith at the Natural History Museum.  After she goes blind, her father builds her an elaborate model of their city and takes her out to teach her how to navigate by herself.  She also learns how to read braille and loves Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, although she only has part I.  After the war starts, the two flee Paris and live with Marie Laure’s Great-Uncle Etienne who was shattered by WWI and lives in the seaside village of Saint-Malo.

Just over two hundred miles away, Werner is a young German boy growing up in an orphanage with his sister. Werner is mathematically and mechanically gifted.  He fears having to enter the mine as all orphan boys have to do at a certain age. His father died in a mine collapse and his body was never recovered. He repairs and makes better an old radio, and he and his sister Jutta listen to a Frenchmen that has a radio program about science for children along with classical music.  Werner works to better himself and dreams of becoming an engineer.  After Werner fixes the radio of an officer in mere minutes after others have tried and failed, he finds himself tested and sent to a school at Schulpforta where he excels at mathematics and electronics, but finds himself in a vast moral dilemma.

Major Reinhold von Rumpel is tasked with finding the most precious jewels in Europe to add to Nazi Germany’s collection.  He is obsessed with finding the elusive “Sea of Flames” a cursed diamond that was housed in the Natural History Museum in Paris.  At the fall of Paris, three fakes were made and two were sent off with the real thing from Paris.  von Rumpel slowly tracks down all copies and his search leads him to Saint-Malo.

This novel was excellent.  The suspense was killing me at times.  It was written in very short chapters that switched the point of view between the three main characters.  It also started with the Allies getting ready to invade Saint-Malo and poor blind Marie Laure trapped alone in her house, unable to read the flier telling all residents to leave.  It flashed back in time to Marie Laure’s childhood and then back to the future until the storylines collided at the end of the novel.  This format really kept up the suspense of the novel.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Marie Laure being trapped and also Werner in also in a perilous predicament at the same time.

The question of the morality of war and the aftereffects was paramount to this novel.   There are two important side characters in Werner’s storyline that tell the brutality of war.  One is his friend Frederick.  Frederick is a dreamer and a lover of birds, but this does not fit the mold for what their elite school wants Frederick to be. The things that happen at this school are horrifying.  Volkheimer is a big brute of an upperclassman that is nicknamed the “giant” and that most people fear.  He does his job at school and out in the field as a soldier as he has been directed.  But there is a soft spot in Volkheimer for Werner and for a life that does not follow this downward trend in morality.  Volkheimer through his words and actions helps Werner to realize that not all people are bad and that there is a life worth living for beyond the hell they are trapped in.

This book and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah also really brought home the fact for me the horrors of war for women.  There is a section at the end about Werner’s young sister Jutta and her fate in Germany as the Third Reich was dying and the Russians were invading.  It was not pleasant.

The writing in this book was beautiful as was the imagery.  I loved it and would love to see it as a movie.

I also enjoyed how the book didn’t end with the end of the war, but flashed to the future to see how the main characters faired.  It seemed surreal to read about everyone moving on to everyday jobs once they had been through such trauma.  It was great portrayal of the war and of Germans in particular.  I liked how it showed a three dimensional side to things and how all Germans weren’t evil moustache twirling monsters or completely ignorant of the horrors, but many were trapped in a moral quandary in between.

This book was the March selection for the FLICKS Book and Movie Club.  I was out of town at a conference and the book didn’t come from the library in time.  I hope that I can talk to some of my fellow book club members about this book soon.  It was excellent.

Overall, All the Light We Cannot see is a great suspense novel and a good look at the moral quandaries of war.  It is a book not to be missed.

Book Source:  The Kewaunee Public Library – Thanks!


  1. I don't know why it's taking me so long to read this book... everybody seems to love it. The Nightingale is on my wish list, too. Thanks for your review.

  2. I'm not a fan of historical fiction, but this does sound good. Glad you liked it so much!

  3. This sounds excellent and I am still on the library waiting list! Lol

  4. All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale are both the top books I've read so far this year - and I've read a lot of good books. I highly recommend them both.

  5. This novel sounds truly wonderful and I am definitely going to try to read this before too long. Excellent review, Laura!

  6. I'm really looking forward to reading All the Light We Cannot See--sounds powerful, interesting, and a different take on your typical WWII story.

    Great review--thanks.

  7. I'm really dying to read this one -- I'm in a writing class and we've been studying the opening two pages. I'm hooked -- but it's quite a wait for a copy from the library!

  8. This book offers a stunning mix of two points of view--a blind French girl in Sant Malo, a town about to be bombed by the Allies (and her history), and Werner, a boy brought up under Hitler's Germany (his past and his part in the battle for Sant Malo)--and lets us see how the war frays and penetrates the souls of these two people. It is beyond beautifully written (and I am the author of 50 children's book, so am somewhat familiar with writing style...) and the words are so glorious that they make me want to lift into the air.

  9. I have yet to post a review, though this is one of my favorite all-time reads! I can't say enough good about this book! Glad to see you loved it as well... :)

  10. I'll look forward to your review! This is one of the best books I've ever read as well. I'm writing my top ten books of 2015 list right now and it's on it! I still think about this book. I definitely need to read it again one of these days.

  11. This book may haunt me for some time. I can't express enough how beautifully written the pages are. I highly recommend this read as it is my favorite so far for 2014.

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