Author: Anthony Doerr
Publishing Date: 2014
Number of Pages: 530
Genre: Historical, Romance
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When the Nazis occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. His talent for building and fixing these crucial new instruments wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. That leads him to Saint-Malo where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
On my numerous travels to different bookstore, there are just times that I simply cannot resist the urge to buy books that I am barely familiar of. Such random purchases led me to great works that I would have never encountered had I been very conservative of my choices. Sometimes, I just end up buying books for no particular reasons at all. This was the case when I purchased Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See.
The thing that first struck me about All The Light We Cannot See is its interesting book cover. My curiosity was piqued even more when I learned that it was a New York Times bestseller and that it was a National Book Award finalist. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I included it on my 2017 Top 20 Books to Read and thankfully I got to read it before the year draws to a close.
Unintentionally, my reading year has been saturated by numerous historical novels. Through no particular fault of mine, I have ended up with books that involve the Second World War like Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and Maeve Binchy’s Light A Penny Candle. It seems that I won’t be having any reprieve from this recurring theme. Nonetheless, I find nothing wrong with this. Instead, I am more interested on the story that is yet again to unfold before me.
The novel revolves around the French Marie-Laure and the German Werner. The two characters grew up in different circumstances as Marie-Laure grew up with her father while Werner grew up in the orphanage together with his sister, Jutta. The story follows the individual journey of the two main characters as they both get displaced due to the Second World War.
Werner and Jutta grew up in an orphanage as they were orphaned when their parents perished on a mining accident. One day, they discovered a radio which they used to listen to any broadcasts or signals that reach their area. It was the sibling’s connection to the world. By tinkling this radio, Werner gained an important skill that brought him outside of the orphanage. Afraid to end up a miner, Werner decided to attend the National Political Institute during the war in spite of his sister’s protests.
Marie-Laure, on the other hand, got blinded when she encountered the infamous jewel, Sea of Flames. As a result, she had to get used to being blind. To get her used to her blindness, Marie-Laure’s father created a miniature of their neighborhood but just as she was about to memorize her neighborhood, war broke out which pushed her and her father to move to her agoraphobic uncle Etienne’s home in Saint-Malo.
Werner and Marie-Laure’s adventures in wartime Germany and France made them encounter other characters who played significant roles in the story. Among them are Volkheimer, Frederick, Madame Manec and Sergeant Major von Rumpel. Werner met Volkheimer and Frederick in the institute while Marie-Laure met Madame Manec. Etienne’s caretaker. But the most significant of these characters is Sergeant Major von Rumpel who made it his personal vendetta to track down the accursed Sea of Flames.
But what exactly is the Sea of Flames? It is an accursed gem that is kept at the Museum where Marie-Laure’s father works. It is said that the bearer of the gem will not die but those people surrounding the bearer will suffer misfortunes. Due to its alleged magical power, a lot of people tried to possess it. Because of this, the museum did its best to keep it from those who want to possess it for their personal gains. This gave an air of mystery to the story because the reader is to guess who possesses it.
I initially didn’t like the book. It felt very mundane at first but then a great realization hit me that made me think highly of this work. The more I delve into the story, the more I appreciated it. By having two teenage characters, Anthony Doerr is conveying to us the untold stories of the children who died and suffered because of Adolf Hitler’s assent to power. Doerr, through his powerful writing, did a wonderful job of painting in hauntingly intricate details both France and Germany during the war.
Primarily, the story was about the second world war and the abuses committed, especially of the Hitler Youth. In the institute where Werner studied, the weakest were being weeded out and eliminated one by one. The mantra that only the “strongest will survive” is being sternly embedded on the minds of the students. The weakest ones were pushed beyond their limits until they eventually quit, a resonating portrayal of how the Fuhrer slowly eliminated his enemies.
The biggest issue I had with the book was the manner the story was conveyed. Doerr told Werner and Marie-Laure’s story in alternating chapters comprised of short dialogues and paragraphs. Instead of complimenting the story, this style instead muddled and confused the story. It left me reeling every after chapter because I was forced to shift to another perspective. It is meant to make it more straightforward but it only slowed down because I had to jump back to prior chapters in order for me to refresh my memory. I’ve had my fair share of stories effectively told in the same manner but in Doerr’s case, it was an just overkill.
Nonetheless, I have to commend Anthony Doerr for doing a magnificent job in All The Light We Cannot See. The way he described things and events in details, both candid and intricate, was just impeccable. Save for the manner the story was told and the interjection of the Sea of Flames, the book is great. Doerr’s powerful prose takes the you to a haunting experience that stirs their emotions. You laugh, you cry, you get shocked, you get angry, but in the end, you’ll fall in love with the book. And that, at the end of the day is what is important.
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended for those who love reading stories about the world war. It seems that every readers loves stories about children, and this is not an exception.
About the Author
Anthony Doerr was born in October 27, 1973 and was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Majoring in history, he graduated in 1995 at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
In 2002, Doerr published his first book, The Shell Collector which is a collection of short stories taking place in Africa and New Zealand. About Grace, published in 2004, was his first novel. This was followed by two more books Four Seasons in Rome (2007), a memoir and Memory Wall (2010), another short story collection. However, it was his second novel, All The Light We Cannot See that gained him international recognition. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. Aside from the Pulitzer Prize, Doerr also won four O. Henry Prizes, three Pushcart Prizes, the Rome Prize and the Story Prize.
He is currently residing in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons.