All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a poetically charged tale of morality and love in wartime, as well as an exploration into the value of life even in the darkest of times. Told in the present-tense with a switchback narrative that guides the reader between different stages of past and present, All the Light We Cannot See mainly follows two characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, in the mid to late 1940’s.
Marie-Laure is a young blind girl living in France at the beginning of World War Two, while Werner is a perfectly Aryan German youth. Worlds apart and yet closer to one another than even the reader at first realizes, Marie-Laure and Werner spend the pages of the novel navigating their youth, their familial struggles, and their passions in life in the midst of wartime. Though we at first meet both characters later in their lives, we eventually trace them back to their childhood: Marie-Laure with her father in Paris and Werner in a mining town orphanage in Germany. However, within mere pages we follow Marie-Laure back to where we met her at her Uncle’s home in Saint-Malo and Werner to Schulpforta, a school for Nazi youth and eventually into the ranks.
Marie-Laure despite her blindness is a master of navigation and has a penchant for sea creatures and reading. Werner, not at all aligned with Hitler’s plan for the Germany or the world, sees Nazism not only as an escape from the mine that stole his father’s life but also as a gateway into engineering and science: his two greatest passions. From the outset Marie-Laure is a strong-willed character with a purity unparalleled by nearly any other character. She is constantly worrying about others, trying to do the right thing, and urging those around her into happier states of being through her optimism and persistence.
Werner, on the other hand, finds himself constantly silenced by a fear to act out of the ordinary and to be punished for doing so. While Marie-Laure was nearly born an outcast, Werner, with his hair of snow and eyes of blue struggles to remain neutral and invisible among the crowd so that he can pursue his passions even if at the expense of others. He does his best to protect those around him, such as his younger sister Jutta and his friend Fredrick; however, he does so passively, never actually standing up for either of them or acting on their behalves. Though rattled with guilt for his inaction throughout the novel, it is not until Werner has aged into his teens and experienced the more palpable horrors of war that he begins to act on his desire to do good.
Questions of value both metaphoric and literal are continually raised in the novel as Doerr prompts the reader to think about what riches really mean. The riches of gemstones, of family, and of the preciousness of life are examined by nearly every character and understood in a different way by each. Despite risking his life for a rare blue diamond, Marie-Laure’s father at one point comments that “a diamond…is only a piece of carbon compressed in the bowels of the earth for eons and driven to the surface in a volcanic pipe.” Of all the riches in the world, which is worth living for, dying for, fighting for?
Doerr suggests that perhaps it is all the light that we cannot see which, though invisible, guides us through the toughest of times to find purpose, happiness and rare moments of perfected and rich bliss. “All of light is invisible” Doerr notes, and yet it is there, always there, manifesting itself in different forms: in reflection, in colors, in our imagination, in dreams. Marie-Laure, the one character who is literally without light throughout nearly the entire novel proves to be the heroine: untouched by the darkness that has surrounded her.
A beautifully woven tale about finding light even in the darkest of places, Anthony Doerr’s New York Times Best Seller and Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See is both inspiring and moving with a momentum that keeps you reading page after page.
Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All the Light We Cannot See is available at your local bookstore.