All the Light We Cannot See Review

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: My Review

Rating: 4/5 stars

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.

All the Light We Cannot See was undoubtedly one of the most beautifully well-crafted and complex novels I have read. Avoiding at all costs the tropes of WW2 historical fiction, Doerr explores the birth of the French resistance in the middle of German fascism while sensitively illustrating how the lives of happy young children are upturned and irreparably changed by the harrowing occurrences around them. 

I think I can confidently say that the two main protagonists in this book will remain present in my mind for many years and they are, above anything else, an inspiration. The story is told in dual perspectives starting off with Marie Laure, a blind French girl who is forced to emigrate from Nazi-occupied Paris where she lives with her father to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with her great-uncle. The way Doerr crafts her narrative was breathtaking and heightened my senses so much that I began to truly feel what it must be like to be blind, wandering through an unknown war-torn city. Then we have Werner, a German orphan who finds himself in a brutal Hitler Youth academy and, due to his superlative skill at mathematics and fixing radios, becomes part of a military group in charge of seeking out anti-Nazi radio broadcasts, thus immediately destroying both the radio and the person behind it. The dynamic of these two young characters, alongside many others whose lives are running invisibly parallel to each other until they eventually converge in the most unexpected way, sets All the Light We Cannot See apart from so many other historical fictions out there. It becomes not just your typical war story but a coming of age journey that evokes inescapable empathy as we see how Marie Laure and Werner are forced down two entirely different yet awful paths by circumstances beyond their control, but are always united by that one destructive monster of war. We see how boys were brainwashed by Nazism and made into animals in order to survive, how pure good intelligence led to unimaginably barbaric consequences, and how girls not even turned teenagers had to take their survival into their own hands as all the adult protection and stability around them falls to pieces. 

Among the unforgettable characters, another aspect of this book that I loved was the prose. The story is built on stunning imagery, both in the physical and metaphorical sense, and I felt I needed to savour each word - the paragraphs sing and bring an incredible visual component to the story, making it one that is totally immersive and transporting. That being said, at times I found that, because of the density of the descriptions, the pacing was a bit too slow for my liking, which is why I felt I couldn't give it a full 5 stars. Alongside this is the fact that I unfortunately read this book whilst doing my exams, meaning I got through it very slowly and often my mind was elsewhere, but nevertheless the intricacy and heartwrench of the story was not lost on me and I found it to be a much-needed escape during a time of stress. 

If there is one thing that I find to be the most ingenious about this book, it is quite simply its title, which references the light that we are unable to see. Well, on a scientific level, there is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans eyes are able to detect. Yet similarly, historically, we only really see a small portion of a story. History is whatever the victors say it is. We don't open our eyes to the countless invisible stories buried beneath the Second World War - or any war, for that matter - and that's what Doerr demonstrates so poignantly in his novel. With the juxtaposition of seeing and not seeing, the novel explores the moral uncertainties of life and whether it is really possible to own your life during war. 

Overall, with haunting prose, characters and profound undertones, All the Light We Cannot See was an extremely enjoyable read full of unpredictability and bittersweet emotion. A perfect addition to my collection of favourite historical fiction books.


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