Ever since The Book Thief made me sob on the bus, I’ve avoided reading novels about World War Two on public transport. So, when I decided to take All the Light We Cannot See on a train, I knew there was a high chance I’d need tissues.
In the end, I stayed dry-eyed but it was a close run thing. Anthony Doerr’s beautifully written story focuses on two teenagers in occupied Europe; a French girl who supports the resistance and a young Nazi radio operator. In their own ways, they’re both victims of the war.
Marie-Laure is smart, curious and has been blind since the age of six. When the Nazis invade, she and her father flee Paris, leaving behind her books in braille and the tiny scale model her father built to help her navigate their neighbourhood.
I hadn’t expected the other main character to be as likeable. Werner, a German orphan, is a pupil at an elite Nazi school for boys. But, his viewpoint shows how even children at the heart of the regime were brutalised. Werner’s violent education is his only alternative to hard labour in the mines that killed his father.
The third strand of the book is based around Von Rumpel, an adult Nazi and stereotypical villain. He’s intent on tracking down the Sea of Flames; an immensely valuable diamond with a bloodsoaked history.
Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories give an insight into the lives of young people on different sides of the conflict. I was less gripped by the subplot. Von Rumpel suspects that Marie-Laure’s father, an employee at Paris’ Museum of Natural History, may have been entrusted with the missing diamond, or at least one of several decoys, and is determined to hunt him down.
Von Rumple’s presence heightens the sense of menace, but his character seemed two dimensional, perhaps due to his relative lack of page time. Instead, I was more interested in learning how (and if) Marie-Laure and Werner survived the war.
One of the themes that links their stories is radio. It’s Werner’s electrical skills that bring him to the Nazi’s attention and Marie-Laure escapes Paris to her great uncle’s house by the sea, where she finds that he used to broadcast scientific programmes for children.
The supporting characters around the pair are also a treat to read. Werner’s friend, Frederick, is an independent thinker in a school full of boys forced to become Nazi drones. I’d have loved to see his personality fleshed out a little more.
I also enjoyed Madam Manec, a housekeeper for Marie-Laure’s great-uncle. She becomes something of a mother-figure to the teenager and joyfully gathers together a wonderful group of older ladies, intent on thwarting the occupying soldiers’ plans.
This novel demands concentration. At over 500 pages it isn’t a quick read. The story’s non-linear and flits between different characters, with short chapters that jump from the 1930s to the war’s end.
The language is beautifully descriptive. Anthony Doerr packs the book with phrases such as “herons stand like flowers” and “a cookbook lies facedown in her path like a shotgunned bird”. It’s inventive and enjoyable. You can see why the author scooped up a Pulitzer.
Verdict: All The Light We Cannot See isn’t a novel that races from start to finish. It’s a slow journey that gives you time to look around and enjoy the subtle nuances. The language is stunning and evocative but be prepared for upsetting moments – it is a book about war.