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
“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!
This is the first book I’ve read by Anthony Doerr, but after the rewarding experience I’m looking forward to reading some more.
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."
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.
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.
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.
There are so many layers to this story. Marie-Laure is blind. Her father has been charged with protecting a valuable artifact. Her great uncle hasn't been the same since he returned from WWI without his brother. Werner leaves behind a sister when he goes to join the German forces. His goal is to learn more about the radios that fascinate him and are a key to the war effort, but he finds himself accepting the actions of those around him unquestioningly. As the events of the war unfold, the pace of the story picks up, bringing Marie-Laure and Werner closer to the fateful days in August 1944 in Saint-Malo. I was so glad that I finished my grading on Thursday so that I could devour the last 200 pages of this book.
I don't know what I can say that hasn't already been said about this book. The story is complex. The characters are intriguing. The treatment of moral issues is unflinching. There are no easy answers, and that is what makes this book so compelling. At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, this will be one of my favorites of 2014.
All the Light We Cannot See is a profound and poignant study of the tests, triumphs, and also the destruction of the human soul under grim persecution perpetrated by the Nazis. Most horrifying is to read how their indifferent brutality was applied alike to their own Aryan children as it was to their French enemies, and (to them) the insignificant Jews. Beneath the cruel heel of the hobnailed boot, Nazis indiscriminately crushed opposition, individuality, and independence real and imagined.
Overriding all, Doerr builds an atmosphere of ratcheting tension and impending doom followed by their inevitable realization that makes the reader want to turn away, avert the eyes. Even though the book is beautifully written, often lyrical, full of artistry when manipulating time and chronology, masterful in how ultra-short chapters are counterpoised against writing that slows down action to its minutest breath, it is primarily an important book that should and must be read.
At the end of the novel, years after the horror of war is over and as she is nearing the end of a long life, Marie-Laure muses while sitting on a Paris park bench next to her 12-year-old grandson. "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world."
Without books, without readers, thus we forget.
I might have rated it a bit lower because the first half dragged...needlessly so, I feel.
In the end, however, the rating balance seems right...especially because I'm left wondering whether there's much beyond some good character studies. Other than meeting Werner, Marie-Laure and the supporting cast, I don't see much that hasn't been done quite ably in other books.
While the story is worth reading, I'm not sure that there's a good answer to the question, "How do I look at World War II — or any war for that matter — differently after reading it?" While you can't fault a book for not being able to answer that question, it makes it harder to call it one of the best.
Perhaps the incredible hype surrounding this book set my expectations at an unreasonable level but I can't set Doerr's creation on the same level as Remarque's or Heller's. A darn good read but not one of my all-time favorites.
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.
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.
Review written in September, 2015