All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dealing with the shattered lives of those caught up in the Second World War Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is to some extent 523 pages of misery.
Written in short titled chapters and even shorter sentences the novel unravels the lives of the blind French girl Marie-Laure and the impoverished but talented Werner who is brought up in a children’s home in Nazi Germany. Eventually their lives collide in this well constructed and neatly plotted story encompassing the war and its aftermath with the main focus on the hero Marie-Laure as she battles to stay alive in besieged St Malo.
We get to know Marie-Laure well but less so Werner who encounters a wider circle of characters, friends and enemies in his career as radio operator in the army. Werner’s role seems to be one of illustrating how ordinary decent Germans managed to survive in Hitler’s Third Reich. And of how they could justify going along with the horrors and injustices of the regime.
His meeting and his friendship with the doomed Frederick and the tough guy Frank Volkheimer or the military bully Bastian only partly explain the silence of the German populace during the war. As for Reinhold von Rumpel and his obsession with the diamond The Sea of Flames – well he seemed to be from another novel.
In Paris and in St Malo Doerr creates a believable world where desperate survival is tempered with a humanity through characters like Madame Manec and Marie-Laure’s dad Daniel and uncle Etienne who quietly go about resisting the occupying German army despite traitors like Claude Levitte who also want to survive.
In fact there are so many characters in the novel you need to make a list as you go along.
Some are just there briefly while others remain throughout until their final fate is revealed in the last few chapters as they fall into two categories: those that survived the war and those that didn’t.
The period detail and descriptions are brilliant, the story engrossing and immediate with it being written in the present tense but at 523 pages it seems overlong.
Harry Mottram
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is available in paperback from 4thEstate online for £8.99, or second hand, your local library and all good bookshops.