The year is 1944 and bombs rain down on the walled city of Saint-Malo, France. Here, within the ashes of a city in ruin from the onslaught of World War II, does the star-crossed tale unfold between boy and girl in Anthony Doerr’s dazzling novel All The Light We Cannot See. Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Doerr’s novel introduces readers to our blind heroine Marie-Laure Leblanc and orphan Werner Pfennig. Along with her locksmith father, Marie-Laure escapes occupied Paris to the recluse of Saint-Malo as a last hope effort, carrying a mysterious and priceless gem known as The Sea of Flames from the Paris Museum of Natural History. Warner, who is enthralled with mechanics, wiring and radios at a young age is recruited to the Hitler Youth for his skills in repair and whisked off to war.
Doerr’s style of transition and eloquence in the mysterious really shines in his writing. The narrative is expelled between secret radio broadcasts, hidden messages and a fragmented lens on the occurrences between each character prior to meeting. As the novel progresses, the reader will feel the change that the characters endure in their nations, their age and understanding of the world and even of themselves. The binary oppositions and paradoxes that Doerr crafts in his writing are spellbinding and genius. Marie-Laure, though blind, lives in “the city of light” during times of immense darkness. She cannot see the world but with her mind’s eye and eventually masters the ability to travel independently and to see the truths of the world around her. Warner, an albino orphan with no education, has mastered his ability to self-teach the wiring of radio machinery. The two counter-parts each face their own trials in warring nations but come together as two humans developing their own view on the world.
The light that we cannot see is first woven into the tale when Warner hears a radio broadcast on the mind’s ability to create light in darkness. This is a message that resonates throughout the narrative and dialogue as the story progresses. In times of heightened political polarization and global crisis, readers in 2020 will find comfort in Doerr’s message of learning to create our own light when surrounded by the darkness. The boundaries of truth and lies are toyed with in Doerr’s work: navigating them, telling them, discerning them. What is truth and what is a lie and how they can change a nation or an individual is vastly explored with the lives of Marie-Laure and Warner.
Doerr’s novel leaves you pondering the world in a way you never would have before. Subjects that are simple yet entirely complex all at the same time such as love, fear, cruelty, hatred and kindness. His authorial craft is successfully found in his ability to inhabit the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner on an intimate level. Any historian will validate Doerr’s ability to re-create the moods and feeling of the deprived civilian life of war-torn Europe. An authentic and vivid setting really add to the story’s ability to invoke emotion and truly move the reader. With incredibly brief chapters, the book’s formatting is readable for those with short attention spans or feel the need to pick up and put back down the story on different occasions. At a time when war novels have become a dime a dozen, Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See shines as bright as The Sea of Flames itself.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever” –Anthony Doerr.