Have you ever started reading a book with no expectations at all? That’s how I started reading “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, a book I received as Christmas present. Little did I know that this book would irreversibly win my heart with its touching stories and beautiful language, all wrapped up in a mysterious aura.
“All the Light We Cannot See” is a historical fiction book, focusing on the World War II period. It tells the story of two children, a girl and a boy, each belonging to opposing fronts of the war: France and Germany. From France we are presented with Marie-Laure, a curious and brave girl with “an air of otherworldliness“, who unfortunately became fully blind at the age of 6. On the other side, we find Werner, an orphan German boy passionate about radios and engineering.
Their stories unfold at the same time, over a period of approx. 10 years (1934-1944). Both their lives change dramatically as the war intensifies: while Marie-Laure moves from Paris to Saint-Malo (a walled port city in northwestern France) to take refuge, Werner is accepted to a Nazi military school because of his gift for radio mechanics.
Because I was a bit puzzled about the title, I did a short research regarding its interpretation. According to the author, the title has a three-fold meaning. First of all, it is a reference to “the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant)” (Doerr, 2013). Secondly, the title is a metaphor suggesting “the countless invisible stories buried within World War II” (Doerr, 2013), for example, the stories of ordinary children. Thirdly, it is also an allusion to the situations when too much time is spent focusing only on “a small slice of the spectrum of possibilities” (Doerr, 2013). Light is like a mantra for the whole story, being mentioned many times throughout the book:
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
It was interesting to find out, after reading the book, that Anthony Doerr had three main sources of inspiration when building the main narratives of the book:
- the magic of radio transmissions: “I also wanted to conjure a time when it was a miracle to hear the voice of a distant stranger in our homes, in our ears” (Scribner Magazine, 2014)
- a visit to the city of Saint-Malo, destroyed almost completely during World War II (Doerr, 2014)
- how French cultural and natural science treasures were sent away in order to be protected when Germans invaded Paris (Doerr, 2014)
From a reader’s point of view, I would like to share with you three main insights I’ve identified while reading this book: (1) the transcendence of human nature, (2) the side issues that arise when living during wartime, and (3) the colorful language and expressions used by the author.
As the author chose to depict the stories of a German boy and a French girl, we are presented with a dual perspective on war – the ones attacking and the ones being attacked. Doerr illustrates how both sides of the war have a human component, and how human nature transcends over tumultuous times and creates bridges starting from common interests such as art or science. I’ve personally started to develop as much sympathy for Werner as I did for Marie-Laure, even though Werner was officially part of the villains’ side.
Alongside the dual perspective on war, the author touches upon many themes related to life during wartime in the subplots of the book, for example: local women organizing themselves in a French Resistance movement, post-traumatic stress disorder of military veterans, and the refugees’ experiences as they move to a different city (or country) to escape from war. All these do not only shine light upon World War II, but also on the current conflicts taking place around the world.
“All the Light We Cannot See” was the first book I’ve ever read that has a blind person as the main character, and I think the author did a pretty good job in depicting the implications of this impairment. For example, it is widely known that blind people compensate for their lack of sight by having their other senses enhanced, and Doerr beautifully translated into words the synesthetic experiences of Marie-Laure:
“The eggs taste like clouds” (when eating omelet)
“She’s eating wedges of wet sunlight” (when eating peaches)
As you can imagine, I fully recommend reading this novel! It will not only give you a different look on the times during World War II, but it will also keep you fully engaged with its short chapters, back and forth movements in time, thought-provoking reflections about life, and characters that will slowly but surely slip into your heart.
Have you read any historical fiction novel? Which one(s) do you recommend?
‘Till next time … happy reading!
PS: If you want to learn more about Doerr, I think this interview is a good starting point. I really like the way we writes and talks, and I plan to read his other books as well (About Grace, The Shell Collector, Memory Wall, and Four Seasons in Rome).