Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.’

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of Hitler Youth.

 In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

 

It took me about three months and one up-til-midnight-cause-it’s-so-good-night to finish Anthony Doerr’s novel, All The Light We Cannot See, and I’ll tell you why. Caught up with starting a new job, travelling to Cairns, celebrating Christmas and an overnight stay in hospital, ATLWCS became a staple in my handbag and on my bedside table as I read through snippets at a time, picking up the text whenever I was hungry for words.

Doerr’s words are a feast for the mind, too. He loves to use surprising language, infrequently used words, like xenolith, entropy, spectral (there are so many great examples that I wish I’d underlined at the time of reading). The archived mollusks in the Natural History Museum, the changing leaves in the Jardin des Plantes, and the ancient ramparts in the coastal town of Saint-Malo all come to life by Doerr’s vivid descriptions – detailed and uniquely artful, as if they were written by a blind girl’s father to help her see the world more clearly. 

I loved both Marie-Laure and Werner’s fascination with science. Marie-Laure loves mollusks, shells, aquatic life, spurred by her childhood spent at the museum, and the Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which she reads in braille. Werner loves radios, light (‘Why doesn’t the wind move the light?’), the ocean (‘It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel’), questioning everything.

Their lives coincide but differ – Werner is and orphan from a mine-town in Germany, Marie-Laure is a blind girl who’s father is her life – and their stories are told concurrently, segmented through the years. They collide in Saint-Malo, only briefly, only for an instant really.

When I got to the final sections of the book (last night) I was desperate to finish. I even switched off my light with 50 pages left, only to switch it back on half an hour later to get to the end. The way the novel explores war and human goodness stuck with me, and also the people who get left behind after death or war. There’s an interesting passage in the final pages about souls, how maybe they buzz around in the air above us, travelling much like the transmissions of text messages and television programs, ‘faded but audible if you listen closely enough.’ I like to think this might be true.

 

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