All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

By Nazia Hashmi
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“That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing…The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane”.

This book is magical, in its lyrical prose and stunning imagery. Set against the waning days of World War II, the destiny of a blind girl living in Paris, under attack by the Nazis, crosses with an orphan-radio whiz fighting at the front of the German Lines. Amidst the barbarity and all the desperation that comes with war, we see two souls struggling with choices that life has meted out to them, and feel the pain of the ephemeral nature of their daily existence. 

“… in between, he told me, he “procrastinated” by writing two other books. The problem that kept leading him away from the book, he said, was the research.”

But it is the research that appears to give the book an edge with its intricate and – mind you – not at all boring details on the use of radio technology by the Germans. Due credit goes to the author for managing to make even radio technology enchanting.

The novel is about two children who, despite being on opposite sides of World War II, have their fates tragically entwined. One is a French girl, Marie-Laure, who turns blind by the age of six.  She is raised by her beloved father, who is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds a miniature model of her neighborhood for her, which the girl uses to memorize every drain, tree and alley in her vicinity. After the Germans attack Paris, Marie-Laure flees to the seaside town of Saint-Malo with her father, taking with them a precious blue diamond entrusted to him for safe keeping by the Museum of Natural History. The other child who will soon cross Marie-Laure’s path is Werner, an albino radio whiz who was orphaned at an early age in a depressed mining town in Germany. Recruited by the Nazis for his amazing skills with radios, he finds himself fighting the Resistance at the front of the German lines and soon, lands right in Saint-Malo. 

Marie-Laure is a beautiful character. She draws you into the remarkable nature of blindness and you find yourself feeling both her pain and desires. In contrast, Werner’s character lacks some depth. His feelings and emotions are harder to resonate with, and you get the feeling that the author uses a softer, gentler brush to paint Marie-Laure’s character, while Werner’s character is a somewhat hurriedly composed, more to complete Marie-Laure’s character than form a character in its own right.

However, Werner’s is a story that the author uses to gently explore how ordinary Germans might have ended up doing what they did. Indeed, my favorite part of the book involves Werner’s training at an elite Nazi training camp. Werner struggles to adjust his moral compass amidst Nazi propaganda and brainwashing. Like most of us, he faces situations which allow him to either do what is expected of him and feign ignorance at an injustice that is accepted by the masses, or risk everything by standing up. Does Werner have the courage to be his own hero? Or is his nation’s agenda important enough to allow ‘small’ sacrifices?

At 530 pages, the book is a long-ish one, but its chapters are short and enticing. The author builds the characters slowly, with vivid detail, and the reader becomes enchanted by them with each turning page. Doerr skillfully goes back and forth in time, and alternates between Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories with such artfulness that you can feel the suspense of two stories, two fates, two souls, chugging towards their inevitable collision.

However, one cannot help but feel the book could have finished 200 pages earlier. While the writing is nothing short of enchanting, it can sometimes become tiresome, making you wish that the author described the fields and the weather just a tad bit less.

The novel is definitely a page turner, although it is more than a thriller, with its deep exploration of human nature and its historical background. You find yourself deeply invested in the fate of the characters and will keep reading the book to find out what happens to Marie-Laure and Werner, and other characters that you become attached to along the way. 

For those on a long plane/train ride, or a holiday with lots of reading time, you are in for a treat with this book!

 

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About Nazia Hashmi

Nazia worked as a technology analyst at Goldman Sachs, with a BSc in Computer Science Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master of Science in Economics from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  She is currently held hostage by her tiny army of three children. When allowed, she likes to talk to adults, tutor the SATs and teach part time at the Singapore American School. She is always looking for a good book.