by Anthony Doerr
Towards the end of World War II, the seaside city of Saint-Malo, France is bombed by the Allies. Werner, a young German soldier with a innate understanding of electronics is trapped underneath the rubble with a radio. Across the city, Marie Laure finds herself alone in her uncle’s home, hiding from a Nazi treasure hunter obsessed with a precious jewel in her possession, in a secret room with a radio transmitter and her braille copy of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr switches between the “present day” of the bombing of Saint-Malo, and Marie Laure’s and Werner’s childhoods. We follow Marie Laure and her father, the master of locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When Marie Laure goes blind as a child, he painstakingly builds a miniature version of their Parisian neighborhood to scale to help her learn to navigate around on her own. The ever-curious Marie Laure spends her days exploring the Museum of Natural History and reading Jules Verne and Alexander Dumas in the evenings. When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie Laure and her father must flee to Saint-Malo to hide away a precious gemstone from the museum that may or may not be a famous, cursed sapphire.
Werner’s childhood is less happy. Growing up with his sister as an orphan in Nazi Germany, he teaches himself how to fix radios. When his talent for electronics is discovered, he is separated from his sister and sent to an elite Nazi school, where he must confront the cruelties of Nazi ideologies while improving on ways to triangulate radio signals. He’s pulled into the war as part of a small team tracking down underground resistance radio operators, which eventually leads him to Saint-Malo, France…
All the Light We Cannot See is a richly-detailed, atmospheric work. Doerr uses all the senses and intricate details to bring Paris, Saint-Malo, and Nazi Germany. While the writing tends to be dense with description, Doerr uses short chapters and alternating points-of-view to keep the book moving swiftly, as he carefully weaves the stories of Marie Laure and Werner together. All the Light We Cannot See would be an excellent book for anyone who enjoys World War II historical fiction, novels where seemingly disconnected stories that are brought together in interesting ways, or lyrical writing styles where a beautiful sentence might make you pause in delight.
You Might Also Consider…
- If you like World War II historical fiction with beautiful and unusual writing, try The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
- If you want another story about a moment of beauty in the midst of war that brings people together, try The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
- For a fictional account of the Nazi occupation of France told from multiple points-of-view that was written during the Occupation, check out Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky