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Alex Liu Reviews All the Light We Cannot See

Last updated on December 14th, 2019 at 01:59 am

By Alex Liu

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See tells the tale of a French girl and a German boy as they find themselves caught on opposing sides in the brutality of World War II. Marie-Laurie LeBlanc is a blind girl who is forced to live with her uncle after her locksmith father, in trying to protect the legendary Sea of Flames diamond from Nazi treasure hunters, is sent to a labor camp. Werner is an orphan whose virtuosic skills in radio mechanics save him from a future working the mines and earn him first a place in an elite Nazi military academy and then a high-ranking position in the Wehrmacht. As more and more is revealed of the fragmented narrative, Werner and Marie-Laure’s parallel paths begin to intersect. And as these two struggle to make sense of the violence that surrounds them, we begin to understand the dual meaning of the novel’s title: the “light we cannot see” refers not only to the invisible radio-waves in which Werner is well-versed, but also to the rare moral goodness that brings Werner and Marie-Laure together in a historical time of darkness.

Doerr succeeds brilliantly in not only creating a beautiful story against a backdrop of martial horror but also in humanizing the tens of millions whose deaths in World War II are usually statisticized rather than rightfully memorialized. For, while the novel is fictional, the characters feel intensely real. Marie-Laure’s personal history – her progressive loss of eyesight, her infatuation with marine animals – makes her an intriguing character, while her philosophical musings, rendered in eloquently written passages, lend her a tremendous amount of depth and complexity. Werner is equally compelling and well-rounded, with unique traits – his albinism, his prodigious understanding of electromagnetic waves – and a mature ability to question the propaganda that surrounds him and the brutality of the Nazi regime. The supporting cast of characters, such as Werner's sister, Jutta, and Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, lend the quirkiness and emotional intensity that fulfill Doerr’s goal of giving voice to the victims of World War II.

Ultimately, what make All the Light We Cannot See an enjoyable read are Doerr’s masterful abilities as both writer and raconteur. The novel is written in an articulate prose that is as fluent as it is expressive, creating a smooth narrative while giving rise to wonderfully beautiful and quotable passages. By moving back and forth in time, though, Doerr aims continually to withhold the resolutions we so eagerly wish to see and to punctures the smoothness and the beauty with page-turning suspense. Now, admittedly, I found this technique of narrative fracturing to be, at times, a bit jarring and tiring, and, personally, I believe that a chronological organization of the plot would have better complemented the depth of the narrative and the philosophical richness of Doerr’s ponderings. But Doerr compensates for this sometimes-cumbersome technique with short, easily readable chapters, and, as a result, the book is a masterful demonstration of literary acumen.

Throughout the novel, Doerr manages to fit poetic ideas into succinct sentences, creating a book that is as reflective as it is entertaining. Indeed, Doerr’s descriptions communicate imagery and his musings reflect upon the story in ways that certainly distinguish this book from others of similar plot. In addition, Doerr succeeds at sprinkling the narrative with motifs that skillfully connect, as well as foreshadow, the story. Indeed, the success of All the Light We Cannot See is largely due to Doerr’s ability to be fearlessly contemplative while remaining grounded in necessary literary techniques.

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a must-read for those seeking to reflect upon both the human capacity to commit evil and the willingness and the strength to do good.