Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret. Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father's life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering. At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.
"So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?"
Marie Laure LeBlanc is a blind twelve-year-old girl living in Paris with her father, the master of the locks at the Museum of Natural History, when the Germans seize control and begin their occupation of the country in 1940. They are forced to evacuate and make their way to her great uncle’s home in the sea side village of Saint-Malo. Her father carries with him the museum’s most prized and dangerous gem. He tries to make the world smaller for Marie Laure by building her a model, an exact replica of the town and by creating wooden puzzles for her to twist, turn and eventually crack open to reveal the surprise inside. (More about that in a bit.) Her natural curiosity and intelligence are fueled by her love for her father. And little by little she makes her way through Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
At the same time, in a German mining town three hundred miles northeast of Paris, seven-year-old orphan Werner Pfennig and his younger sister Jutta, are raised at Children’s House by the indomitable Frau Elena. In the land of ‘make-do’ she performs tiny miracles every day to keep her young charges healthy and productive. But Werner is an extremely bright and inquisitive child, and his interest in short wave radios and their transmissions allow him and Jutta to hear a Frenchman, talking about science. They are enthralled. At the same time Werner comes to the attention of authorities and that leads to his acceptance in the exclusive and brutal Hitler Youth Academy and eventually to the tracing of illegal radio transmissions for the Wehrmacht.
Doerr constructs his narrative in such a user friendly way that the pages flip effortlessly, each chapter only a page or two long, so that the 530 page book seems much, much shorter. As I read I was overcome by the beauty of the language and the intricate way Doerr allowed me to twist the puzzle that was the story’s plot, time and again, to reveal the surprise. Back and forth in time he led me until finally Marie Laure’s thread and Werner’s thread meet in August, 1944. Saint-Malo is fully occupied by the Germans but the allies are bombing the town and she can hear a German sergeant-major in the bottom floor of her great uncle’s house, hunting for the precious thing she has kept safe for several years. Gradually the tension that has been building for hundreds of pages comes to a brutal climax. But it’s the denouement that had me holding my breath because this author brilliantly continues the story through 2014.
Clear the boards and make room for a wonderful addition to the WWII literature because this is a keeper and very highly recommended.
The setting is World War II. Marie Laurie is young and blind. When Paris is overtaken by the Germans, she and her father flee to a walled in city and are housed with her uncle. The uncle is a neurotic recluse who never leaves the house, he is paralyzed by his memories. Her father was the keeper and maker of the keys at a natural history museum in Paris. When he flees, he takes with him a very rare jem. Three duplicate like jems are sent out of the museum. Each person carrying the jem has no knowledge of the validity of what they hold.
Enter the Nazi's, bent on finding the exquisite diamond, hunting down and imprisoning Marie Laurie's father. The builder of tiny cities for Marie Laurie, when he is forced to leave her, he hides the rare diamond inside a tiny replicate of the city.
With the background of the ever powerful Nazi regime, we learn in alternate chapters that a small boy, Werner, who is very talented in fixing radios, is forced into a Nazi training school for boys.
It is through the two children we feel the ever encroaching, invasively dangerous Nazi's who destroy all in their path. The beauty of the writing allows the reader to feel the panic of Werner as he watches the barbarity of actions performed at the expense of the boys who reside in the camp, and then, as Werner assists the Nazi's with radio transmissions to hunt down those they deem a potential threat.
As Marie Claire longs for news of her father, through her feelings and thoughts we learn of bombings, fire and the ability of the Nazi's to threaten and terrorize through intimidation. Slowly, with the stealth of a python snake, the Nazi's find their prey and slowly, at their will, squeeze and take breath, and life.
The book is three tiered, beginning with the treat of Nazi invasion, the actual invasion which strips people of their livelihood, their sanity and thiet lives, then the final chapters we watch as Hitler can no longer win and we see the desperation as all is crumbling away. As Hitler falls, those who remain are left to rebuild their lives.
Powerful in rendering emotion, location and the desperate need to live and hope that loved ones are still alive, this is a story that will remain long after the last word is read.
Excellent!!! FIVE STARS
This is the first book I’ve read by Anthony Doerr, but after the rewarding experience I’m looking forward to reading some more.
“You know the greatest lesson of history? It's that history is whatever the victors say it is. That's the lesson. Whoever wins, that's who decides the history.” (Ch 30)
Young Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History where he works, goes blind when she is six, and her papa builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can memorize it and navigate her way home independently. When she is twelve and the Nazis occupy Paris, father and daughter flee to Saint-Malo, where they will live with Etienne, her reclusive great uncle. With them, they carry with them what might be the museum’s most valuable – and most dangerous – jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, Werner grows up with his younger sister, both orphans. He finds and is enchanted with a crude radio he finds, and will later become an expert at building and repairing the instruments – a talent which secures him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth. Participating in special assignments to track the resistance, Werner becomes increasingly aware of the human cost of his intelligence. Eventually, he will travel to Saint-Malo on assignment, where his story and Marie-Laure’s will converge.
All the Light We Cannot See is a remarkable read: as haunting and stark in its portrayal of the human costs of war, as it is beautiful in its portrayal of intimate relationships. I highly recommend!
Here is a war story told from the perspective of two young people - almost too young to be directly involved when the war begins. The blind french girl is on the one hand so dependent on others to show her the way -- at least until she memorizes the way on her own; the young German is so determined not to have to go down into the dark, claustrophic bowels of the earth as the miner his father did. He'll do anything to avoid that darkness.
Each is dealing with darkness from a different standpoint: he is trying to avoid darkness, and she is doomed to live within it. Both of them find light and life from music and from sound. She is evacuated to St Malo where she lives with an uncle who, although a recluse, is building and hiding radios. The German boy too, displays an expertise in building and operating radios, and eventually is rescued from having to go to the mines.
Doerr tells their stories, along with several auxiliary plot lines, in alternate chapters from each youth's point of view. The story is easy to follow, the tension builds quickly, and the inexorable march toward the inevitable makes this a true page turner.
In my case, I was able to "read" this book the same way Marie-Laure would have -- with my ears. The audio version, produced by Simon and Schuster, and and narrated by Zach Appelman, really enables the reader to experience life exactly as young Marie-Laure did. The descriptions of how she "saw" things, how she counted her steps, listened for creaking boards, and was able to tune into radio broadcasts was well portrayed, and perfect for the audio format. I am especially thankful that the producers did not attempt to articulate sounds Marie-Laure heard in her head. It was left to the reader's imagination to furnish that sensory experience.
I don't want to give away the ending of the story. It is realistic, beautiful, heart-rending. This is a book worth reading in any format. It's certainly the best 2014 Fiction I've read so far this year
The novel's two main characters are Werner, a German orphan with a talent for radio electronics, and Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of a French museum's lock master, both of whom are about 13 years old when the chronological story begins. When Werner's aptitude is uncovered, he ids taken from the orphanage and his sister, Jutta) and placed in a Hitler Youth school where his talent will be developed for use in the war. Initially thrilled to have an opportunity better than working in the mines, Werner ignores the twinges of his conscience and follows all orders--even those that ultimately destroy his best friend.
When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the seaside town of Saint-Malo, where her reclusive great-uncle Etienne lives. Her father may carry with him the museum's most valuable jewel, a large diamond known as the Sea of Flames--or he may be carrying one of four replicas of the diamond. For me, the Saint-Malo chapters were the most engaging in the book, mainly because of the well-developed characters and relationships.
Into the mix comes a cancer-ridden German officer charged with finding and bringing back to Berlin the treasures of the France--including the Sea of Flames.
That's all I will say about the plot, aside from the fact that, as one would expect, these characters inevitably come face-to-face with one another. I might have rated this book a bit higher if my expectations had been a little lower, and if the exposition chapters hadn't been quite so plodding. Still, All the Light We Cannot See is a worthwhile and at times very moving book.
I think that based on story alone, this could have been a 5-star read for me. Unfortunately, it wasn't. I thought the writing was studied and overly-polished, which had me focusing more on that than the story. Partially this happened because I was extremely bored by the first third of the book. I understand the reasons for wanting to go back in time and give full portraits of both Marie-Laure and Werner, but I found it mostly tedious, particularly the chapters about Werner. He just wasn't very interesting to me, and I didn't feel like he came alive as a child. Marie-Laure's blindness was handled well, showing both her capacity for self-assurance and the unique vulnerabilities she had. The exact resolution of the story kept me guessing, which was nice.
It was definitely a real page-turner once I got past the boring beginning. However, I had to knock down the rating for that because even though it got a lot better, I found the beginning *very* yawn-inducing, to the point that I considered abandoning the book entirely.
Recommended for: fans of the slow burn, sentimental types, people who like the movie Titanic.
Quote: "Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth."
In its tone and tenor, this is really a YA novel. So it may be a bit surprising that it won the Pulitzer. It is written in a clear filmic style — short, one scene, chapters of about a page and a half in length. Then a quick cut to another character’s point of view. The tension remains high throughout. And you really can’t get bored. There isn’t time. But it is so self-consciously filmic — almost like it is really a “treatment” for a film, preferably directed by Spielberg — that you may find it tiring.
Of course just because this is a YA novel doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen. They do. And some of them are truly awful. But awful in a way that would really look good in a cinema. (That’s maybe too harsh; they would also look good on TV.) I longed for more seriousness, less contrivance of plot, less blatantly heart-tugging characters. But I suppose that would simply have been a different book. And the author would be in his rights to suggest that I ought to go read that one instead. Perhaps I will. And maybe you’ll join me. Because for now, despite the accolades, this one is not recommended.
The novel also has some captivating scenes, all beautifully written. There’s Marie-Laure reading aloud from her braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there’s the ominous agenda inside Werner’s exclusive Nazi training school, and then, if you’re like me, you’ll hold your breath as messages are passed along, hidden in freshly baked bread, and then secretly broadcast from a short-wave radio hidden in the attic of a crumbling house perched on the edge of the sea. Everything is there — all the elements of a well-written and exciting WWII adventure.
And so you settle in, cup of tea in hand and eagerly start reading…and reading…and reading — through 178 chapters. Yes, you read that right — 178 chapters!
Therein lies the first problem — 178 short chapters, many only a few pages, which jerk the reader back in forth in time, often with no clue to the year. The choppy chapters and abrupt time jumps are not only confusing, they actually prevented me from really sinking into the story. One reviewer, knowing that Mr. Doerr is a much better writer than this, surmised his editors insisted on shuffling the timeline. The format did feel gimmicky and like an afterthought. I’d go even further, I think those same editors also insisted on chopping the novel into short chapters to cater to today’s 140-character-tweet-text-snapchat-attention-span readers (That just wrote itself in the throes of my rant – like it?).
Now we come to the second problem, "All the Light We Cannot See" starts out beautifully written and compelling, but then it just seems to fall apart — rather it just never comes together. Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s paths, while coming teasingly close, never really converge. And when they do finally intertwine, they are only together for 10 pages towards the end. Then fast forward 30 years and the book ends not with a bang but with a whimper (my apologies to T. S. Eliot).
The novel won Pulitzer Prize, earned many glowing reviews and many weeks on the bestseller lists. Perhaps I missed something magical in my reading of this book. Maybe it was my mood. Whatever the reason, I was underwhelmed and sadly disappointed upon finishing this novel.
A digital review copy was provided by Scribner via NetGalley.
See all my book reviews at BookBarmydotcom.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Mr. Doerr takes his time telling Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories. They unfold slowly and methodically, carefully building setting, mood, and tone to weave the story around readers and fully ensnare them into its drama and tension, something he achieves with aplomb. Marie-Laure and Werner are two unfortunate souls who are tested and forged in the heat of war. Theirs is a powerful story in which the lines of right and wrong, guilt and innocence blur as readers get to know and understand them. All the Light We Cannot See is a story of perseverance, innocence lost, strengths found, and truths discovered. It leaves readers contemplative as to the intricacies and damage to mind, body, and soul war wreaks on people. More importantly, it leaves readers hopeful that even in the very worst of times, humanity’s innate goodness can and will prevail.
Review written in September, 2015
As the occupation of France begins Marie-Laure flees with her father from Paris to northern France and hide at her uncle’s place.
Werner has an interest in radio transmission and learns by himself to repair radios. He is sent to a strict elite military academy to be trained but he’s an outsider and have trouble to fit in.
One sense that the two teenagers paths must collide at some point and Doerr patiently build up to the climax.
This is also a story about the search for a very big diamond - and the secrets of a hidden radio - but you have to read the novel to find out what that’s all about.
This novel has received a lot of critical acclaim, and has even won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I might have liked it better had it been two hundred pages shorter and not told in by an omniscient narrator whose passion for detailed description got on my nerves sometimes. The narrative structure, which features short chapters alternating between Werner's story in Germany and Marie-Laure's in France, makes the intertwining storylines hard to follow. Still, this is a book that I would encourage every reader to try for himself or herself.
Given my feelings toward WWII lit, it's not a surprise I had such polar sentiments when I learned of Doerr's latest novel. I really love Doerr's writing, but could he pull off such a novel without descending into the conventional western tale? Largely, I think he pulls it off. That's not to say that All the Light We Cannot See doesn't pull occasionally from the bag of Allied stock footage, but overall he makes the story real and original.
All the Light We Cannot See teeters a line of being over sentimental, but for me it never crossed that line. Maybe it did in the concluding chapters, but by that point I was a believer. Overall, Doerr was wise in deciding when to terminate a scene, when to let the reader feel without manipulation. Aside from the drama that may be too much for some readers, Doerr writes perfectly. The characters are distinct and memorable; I felt for them as though they were real and they'll stick with me for some time. The writing is lush and the scenery is painted so vividly that I feel as though I have visited these cities. The many different threads all come together in a way that is satisfying and logical. The story is told in such quick, alternating chapters that the novel never slogs despite its length. The pacing is near perfect and the story is riveting without becoming overly worked. And the use of objects—I love how masterfully Doerr utilizes objects throughout the story. If any writing instructor is looking for a novel to use for an objects-based lesson, I recommend this one. Oh, and the science broadcasts for children—did anyone else wish they could hear those broadcasts in their entirety? The voice was so perfect, the text so fascinating. If they do not already exist, someone needs to write scientific books for children told in that voice. (And if they do exist, someone let me know what they are.)
All the Light We Cannot See is going to be successful and I'm really happy for its author. 2014 has been a great year for literature (see also Mira Jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, Cynthia Bond's Ruby, Karen Gettert Shoemaker's The Meaning of Names, as well as others I have yet to read), but Doerr's latest novel will likely be the most well-received and widely acknowledged of the year's literary choices. If you're one to read award winners and those “best of year” books, this one will be one to take note of now.
Werner is a science prodigy who proves especially gifted in his understanding of electrical circuits. This gift allows him to escape life in the coal mines and gets him into an elite Nazi school where he receives military training and advances his knowledge of radio mechanics. He becomes adept at finding the senders of illegal radio transmissions and so is sent by German army hierarchy to various parts of Europe, eventually arriving in St. Malo shortly after the D-Day invasions just as the siege of the town begins.
Marie-Laure is also a science prodigy of sorts; she becomes fascinated by marine life after being exposed to the displays at the Museum of Natural History where her father works and to books such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. In 1940 when the Germans occupy Paris, she leaves the city with her father and travels to St. Malo to seek refuge with her great-uncle Etienne, a hermit suffering from shell shock from WWI. As he had done in Paris, Marie-Laure’s father builds a detailed scale model of St. Malo so she can learn to navigate the town which is her home for the duration of the war.
Anyone familiar with Nazi atrocities has asked him/herself how the German people could commit those acts. Werner’s story illustrates how many Germans had little choice. As an orphan he is destined for work in the coal mines, a fate he dreads since those mines claimed his father’s life. His intelligence wins him a coveted position at a school, but it becomes a hell of a different sort: “never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded” (139) where the boys are taught by a man “capable of severe and chronic violence” (168). There he is taught that, “’You will eat country and breathe nation’” (137). Werner is a curious boy who was first exposed to science through radio broadcasts from France and often recalls the broadcaster urging children to “Open your eyes . . . and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48). So “For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity” (276). In the school, however, he is told that he must not question: “’minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds’” (263). The students are told, “’You will strip away your weakness . . . you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause’” (137) and are encouraged to identify the weakest amongst them for punishment or expulsion. Werner, above all else, fears being named the weakest and becoming one of “the old broken miners . . . waiting to die” (476), so he tries to forget his sister’s question, “’Is it right . . . to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’” (133), and does what he is told to do: “Werner laces his boots and sings the songs and marches the marches, acting less out of duty than out of a timeworn desire to be dutiful” (277). A friend summarizes Werner’s predicament: “’Your problem, Werner, . . . is that you still believe you own your life’” (223).
The characterization of Marie-Laure is equally interesting. She is shy but intelligent and never is she self-pitying. She has to learn to navigate through darkness, both literally and metaphorically, but does not let it circumscribe her existence; she is determined to conquer her fear and make a difference. She answers the question, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” (327) in the affirmative. One woman describes her as an “amazing child” (402) though Marie-Laure does not see herself that way: “’When I lost my sight, . . . people said I was brave. . . . But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life’” (469). Hers, like Werner’s, is a coming-of-age story in the most difficult of times. If there is a weakness in Marie-Laure’s characterization, it is that we see few flaws.
There are other characters that are either too good or too evil. Frederick, Werner’s friend at the school, is of the former category. Frederick “moves about as if in the grip of a dream . . . [his] eyes are both intense and vague” (184) and “He sees what other people don’t” (163). He is the one cadet who refuses to do as the commandant orders, his fate illustrating what happened to those who refused to behave like ostriches. Sergeant Major von Rumpel is of the latter category in that he has no redeeming qualities. In fulfilling his job, he is ruthless. He becomes the stereotype of a Nazi officer. To make matters worse, von Rumpel is involved in the search for a diamond, a sub-plot which is largely distracting and superfluous.
An element of the novel that deserves mention is the lyrical style employing numerous poetic devices and figures of speech. Alliteration is used: “Shearwaters skim the ramparts; sleeves of vapor enshroud the steeple” (409). Metaphors abound; bombs dropping are described as “A demonic horde. Upended sacks of beans. A hundred broken rosaries” (148). The occupation of St Malo is conveyed so effectively: “Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. . . . So many windows are dark. It’s as if the city has become a library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished” (347 – 348). Repetition such as “Fog on the sea, fog in the streets, fog in the mind” (288) describes setting, creates atmosphere, and reveals mood. Literary and Biblical allusions appear frequently, usually to develop theme: “’That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?’” (449).
The novel’s title refers to one of the themes. In one of the children’s science broadcasts, Werner hears, “The brain is locked in total darkness. . . It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light” (47). The brain has power to create light in darkness, and in the novel characters are occasionally able to see goodness even in the darkest of times, to believe “that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts” (492). The school Werner attends tries to snuff out his human decency but in the end it is recognized that “his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness” (515).
As a child, Werner learns that “the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, . . . mathematically, all of light is invisible” (53). Later, “Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves . . . flying invisibly . . . over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? . . . That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? . . . the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world” (528 – 529). In this novel, the reader, like Werner constantly listening to radio waves, can hear two of the stories stored in the library of invisible light around us.
Despite its weaknesses, this book is a must-read. It will have the reader experiencing a gamut of emotions: sadness, anger, joy. It is a beautifully written story about people caught in a time when “history has become some nightmare” (284) and people’s potential is misused: “What you could be” (459).
The writing and the characters are wonderful and had depth. I even had sympathy for a young German soldier, seeing the world through his eyes. I couldn't see the world through Marie-Laure's eyes because she was blind, but her descriptions of sounds, of what she noticed that most of us do not, was lyrical.
There are orphans and good fathers, traitors, and a whole cast of characters that were occasionally hard to keep straight, but the payback was well worth the effort. Lives intersected, souls were bared, and bits of natural history added another interesting layer as did descriptions of city models.
Among other story lines, this is a story of a father's love for his daughter.
Yet another war story, but this one managed to put itself head and shoulders above so many others.