All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
Before I get into my thoughts about All The Light We Cannot See, I need to share a disclaimer. I love all stories, fiction and nonfiction, that involve World War II. It’s by far my favorite historical era. There are so many interesting stories and perspectives. I cried when I read The Book Thief. Same with Unbroken. I was glued to the screen for all 7 parts of the Ken Burns documentary, The War.
Given my love for all things World War II, it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See.
The heroine of the story is Marie-Laure, a French girl who loses her sight at the age of 6. Her father goes to great lengths to help her cope with her blindness. He builds her models of her Paris neighborhood and teaches her to navigate the streets, read Braille, etc.
When the war reaches Paris, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to flee to the town of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne lives.
The narrative jumps back and forth between narrating the story of Marie-Laure and the story of a German boy named Werner.
Werner grows up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a poor mining town. Despite his modest upbringing, Werner is a very smart and curious boy who teaches himself to repair radio equipment.
Werner, not wanting to succumb to the same fate of his father as a mine worker, is determined to make something better of himself. He attracts the attention of a Nazi in his town and is rewarded with a tryout for a Nazi school. As the war gets underway, Werner leaves to attend the school, seeing it as an opportunity, but not understanding what he has signed up to do.
As the war progresses, Marie-Laure’s father is imprisoned in a concentration camp, she joins the resistance with Etienne and his house keeper and they live under the constant watch of the Nazis that have overtaken their city by the sea.
Meanwhile, Werner’s skills with the radio are further developed by a teacher before he is sent out to join the war efforts in Eastern Europe.
One of the topics that stood out the most to me was the idea of choices and the large cumulative effect they have over time.
On one hand, you have Werner who is passively making choices, doing nothing. Before he leaves for the Nazi school, he has the following conversation with his sister:
Jutta, “Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?”
Werner, “Doing nothing is doing nothing.”
Jutta, “Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”
Werner makes a series of small choices that lead him further and further away from the person he wants to me. His choices lead him to the Nazi school. They lead him to ignore his friend Frederick as he is bullied and taunted for refusing to join in killing a prisoner by dumping a pail of water on him. Werner ignores his conscious by torturing prisoners, turns the other way as he works with a unit to find radio signals and kill those who have been broadcasting them.
Marie-Laure, on the other hand, actively fights against the opposition in her town. She joins her housekeeper in passing messages back and forth to the Allied Forces. Her great-uncle, a recluse who doesn’t leave the house (presumably suffering some type of PTSD from WWI), refuses to participate until the housekeeper dies and he realizes that he can either “do nothing” or actively participate.
Etienne starts broadcasting messages to the Allied Forces from his hidden attic radio.
The stories collide when Werner’s unit is sent to Saint-Malo to find who is broadcasting signals. Haunted by his actions throughout the war, Werner finally makes an active decision to stop helping the Nazis. Even though he detects the radio signal, he doesn’t inform his superiors. He realizes Marie-Laure lives in the house where the signal is broadcast. And in a series of events, ends up saving her life.
“Frederick [Werner’s friend from school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feed–I will not– Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down.”
All the Light We Cannot See is easy to read with very short chapters (most under 3 minutes long, according to my Kindle). Doerr excels at creating believable characters, ones you want to root for even on opposite sides of the War. It’s a boy meets girl story where the main characters only spend hours together.
It’s a good read, even if you don’t like WWII quite as much as me.