All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by American author Anthony Doerr is an expansive World War II novel. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. The novel follows the life of a French girl and a German boy. Yet, it is not their story. It is the story of those countless millions whose life was churned by the merciless machinery of the war.
All the Light We Cannot See Review
All the Light We Cannot See Title Meaning:
The title ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is likely to be interpreted in different ways by different readers. For one, it refers to the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are spread around us and that we cannot see. The radio waves play as important a part in this book as any other character. They are the common factor between the hero and heroine. It’s the radio waves that bring the two together. These radio waves mean passion and freedom for the hero, and comfort and courage for the heroine.
“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
The Light is also all those children whose flames were extinguished by the storm of the war. The dreams, the ambitions, the desires, the talents, the courage, goodness, all sacrificed at the altar of the war.
Maybe, the light is also the tiny flame of hope, of goodness, of humanity surviving when existence becomes a struggle and all seems lost, meaningless, and full of darkness.
The story of All the Light We Cannot See is the story of a blind French girl and an ambitious and talented German boy. The book follows their lives from the pre-war years and shows the devastating effect of war on them. The hero and heroine travel their separate paths. They are together for less than a day, and then part forever.
“Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? Until the armies finish marching back and forth above their heads, until all they have to so is push open the door and shift some stones aside and the house has become a ruin beside the sea? Until he can hold her fingers in his palms and lead her out into the sunshine? He would walk anywhere to make it happen, bear anything; in a year or three years or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they meant now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant and order simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share.”
Intermingled with their life history are the minor stories of the characters they come in contact with. And also the enigma of a precious stone that is coveted and dreaded by many because it is said to bear a magnificent blessing and a dreadful curse.
The narration of the book alternates between the story of the hero Werner and the Heroine Marie-Laure. It also keeps on jumping between past and present. However, the plot is not very complex or difficult to follow.
(I recently read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens which has a very complex plot with intricately woven stories of several people. You can check out my review of Our Mutual Friend to know more.)
The excellence of the book lies in its amazingly vivid descriptions, beautiful writing, and mind-blowing amount of research that must have gone into it.
From pre-war France to the scenes of devastations during the war to the plight of soldiers and civilians…everything is described in vivid detail. Every chapter of the book gives evidence to careful and thorough research that makes the era come alive on the pages of this book.
Intermingled in the descriptions and the story are sentences that will jump out at you. Words that you would want to remember forever. Like:
- “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
- “But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
- “Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”
The author says in this book, “A real diamond is never perfect.” The same can be said about art. Any art, be it a painting, a symphony, a book…it is never perfect.
As magnificent as All the Light We Cannot See is, it has some weak points too. I admire it greatly. I can appreciate its excellence. But I cannot say that I fell in love with it. It never took hold of me. Several times I looked at the pages remaining to see how much more of it there was still to read. While the vivid description is its greatest strength, it also makes the book tedious a lot of times. Here is an example:
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
Several times it felt to me that the story is not moving at all. That there is too much description and too little story. Take the tragedy of the war away, and very little story will be left behind. Maybe I feel this because the story moves along almost imperceptibly through the description of war tearing away at lives.
The Futility of War:
That, I feel, is what this novel is all about. The futility of war. Because in war, nobody wins and humanity loses. All the Light We Cannot See makes no difference between the Germans and the French. It does not talk about the politics and ambitions of the high and mighty. It walks on the ground level amid the dying humanity and broken people. It talks about the lost talent, broken dreams, and dehumanizing of people caught between the wheels of war. Merciless wheels that crush people like insects, or leave them broken forever. It does not matter who attacked who. In the end, all get broken and devastation is everywhere.
“A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries. There are a thousand metaphors and all of them are inadequate: forty bombs per aircraft, four hundred and eighty altogether, seventy-two thousand pounds of explosives.”
Of course, the author gives a ray of hope by saying, “We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.” But that is a feeble consolation in face of the magnitude of destruction wrecked by a World War.
This book reminded me of A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini which is about war-torn Afghanistan. If I compare the two books, All the Light We Cannot See is bigger in scale and with perhaps more exalted writing, but A Thousand Splendid Sons has more stories and characters that touch you more deeply. It is also more depressing.
Should you read it?
If you love literature, then yes. Absolutely. All the Light We Cannot See (Amazon Link) is an exceptional book with excellent writing, a very real and vivid portrayal of World War II, a vast scale, and excellent narration. But if you like only light and quick entertaining books, this one is not for you.
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