All The Light We Cannot See
The coastal city of Saint-Malo, France, is a stronghold of the Germans in the early 1940s. The book begins with the Americans dropping flyers and then bombing the city where blind teen Marie-Laure hides in her great uncle’s house. She possesses a priceless, possibly cursed gem that that the Nazis, one Nazi operative in particular, would kill to get their hands on. In another part of the city, Werner Pfennig, a orphaned teenage engineering prodigy in the Nazi army, is trapped in the basement of a hotel the Germans were using as a base. Their stories, which the reader gets in chapters alternating between their earlier lives as World War II ramps up and the 1944 bombings of Saint-Malo, couldn’t be more different but both have led them to Saint-Malo where they make choices based on years of loss, forced resiliency, unanswered questions, and questionable decisions but also hope and the possibility of setting things right.
The young characters’ nearly manic obsession with things was something that really stood out for me in this book. Marie-Laure learns about mollusks from her father’s colleague at the National Museum of Natural History, a subject that turns into an emotional and physical refuge when she and her father move to Saint-Malo and a grotto full of sea snails is the only place she can escape the fear that rules the city. Werner and his sister Jutta are captivated by radios – Jutta for their ability to let her hear news and broadcasts from around Europe, sometimes illegally, and Werner for the way they work, the engineering and physics that make radios possible. Werner has a charming but often bullied best friend, Frederick, who has extensive knowledge of and a relentless fascination with birds. It is incredible the amount of depth such singular passions bring to the characters. It also is a testament to the characters’ youth, the compulsion to collect and discover and tinker that many adults don’t allow themselves to give into, especially with war looming among the other pressures of adult life.
While the book was narrated in the omniscient third person, much of the book was focalized through Werner and Marie-Laure, and I just loved to read Marie-Laure’s experience with blindness. It was such an unusual, all-encompassing character trait. Calling it a “character trait” seems trite but I wouldn’t even call it a disability based on the book because it was rarely presented as a disability. With some help from her father, Marie-Laure was an incredibly capable young woman who had nary a shred of self pity about her loss of eyesight at an age when she was old enough to appreciate having been able to see. There were a couple of descriptive passages that were told through Marie-Laure’s experience but that read every so briefly as though certain objects were being seen. Otherwise I was very impressed by Doerr’s writing of a blind teenage girl and constantly reminded of the things I take for granted as a fully sighted person.
As you can tell from my book reviews, I rarely read adult books and even more rarely take the time to review them on this blog. All the Light They Cannot See may be written and published for adults, but I think there is a lot here that teen readers and readers of teen books can enjoy. It was also surprisingly “clean” for an adult book – limited swearing, almost no sex, and isolated instances of graphic violence, which is totally appropriate considering the time period. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ends up in high school curricula or at least on summer reading lists.
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