Review: All the Light We Cannot See

In which I review Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See

I don’t know what I feel right now. I’m at once bursting with things to say, and unable to get my thoughts together. This book…Well, I won’t be able to review it without giving some spoilers. So if you don’t want to see any spoilers, I’ll give you my overall, spoiler free opinion first, and then give my full review.


Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.



Over-All, Spoiler-Free Opinion?

I don’t like this book at all. And yet, I give it a 4/5.

It’s never going to be one of my favourite books. It’s never something I’m going to tell a friend, “Go read this right now!” I don’t know that it’s something I’ll ever be able to bear re-reading. But did it have beautiful, breath-taking prose? Yes. Is it something I cannot stop thinking about? Yes. Did it make me feel like I’d been punched in the stomach? Yes. Is it something I’ll ever forget? Not in a million years.

Go ahead and read it. Read it slowly; it’s not a book to be skimmed. Linger over every well-chosen word.

Full Review (A Few Spoilers Ahead! Turn Back Now if This Worries You!)

I liked it really well to begin with. A couple of chapters in, I told my brother that I tentatively recommend it. For me to recommend a book that soon is pretty huge. A couple more chapters in, and I almost bought the book. I was pretty sure at that point that it was going to be a book I’d want to own. (I’m glad I held off on that.)

As the book went on, it got darker, and darker, and darker. I started to get kind of irritated, because wow, this book was unrelentingly depressing. I then thought maybe that was a little unfair, after all, this is a book about WWII, and it takes place in Nazi Germany and Nazi-Occupied France. Was it unreasonable to expect anything to lighten that darkness?

19063No. It’s not unreasonable. Because then I thought about The Book Thief. Also set in Nazi Germany, and yet, it made me smile and even laugh out loud at times. It made me sad, yes, but in the end, I felt hopeful. Or, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. If a diary of a young Jewish girl who had to hide in a tiny annex with other families from the Nazis, only to die in a concentration camp, can contain humour and hope, then no book is allowed to be unrelentingly depressing. Depressing? Sure. But not unrelentingly.519hkx9m69l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

You see, I like my WWII books to show me the good in humanity, amidst all that evil. I like to see people stand up and say, “No. Not okay.” I like a glimmer of hope in the darkness.

Marie-Laure was a wonderful character. She was smart, brave, and wanted to know and understand and explore. I was rooting for her the entire time. As for Werner, I wish I could have seen him care more. He hardly seemed to care at all. I waited for him to stand up for something, and he disappointed me again and again.

When Frederick refused to pour water on the prisoner, when he poured his bucket out on the ground and said, “I will not,” I may actually have clapped aloud. I thought that his example would give Werner courage. I thought that Werner would stand up for Frederick. I waited. But he did not. And when what happened to Frederick happened, I wanted to punch a wall.

I didn’t dislike Werner—do not misunderstand me. In fact, I really, really liked him. But he disappointed me.

You see, the trouble is that there were so many people in Nazi Germany who went along with everything because they felt they had to. There were far too many people who saw, but did nothing. But there were also people who, like Frederick, said, “I will not.” Yes, the majority of them were squashed quickly and mercilessly. But just think, if there had been enough of those people, the horror would not have been able to go on. And so I would much rather read about these than the ones who did nothing.

I enjoyed the characters who were like that. As I said, I loved seeing Frederick pour out his bucket. I loved it when Jutta asked, “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” I loved reading about Madame Manec and her old lady friends, fighting the Germans in their own way. I loved reading about Etienne and his broadcasts. But I wish we could have seen more caring from Werner. We only got glimpses of any pangs of conscience.

This book moved rather slowly, which I don’t mind, but parts of it seemed a little repetitive. Its slow pace made the weight of it all even more oppressive. It was a devastating book, and I kept waiting for light that never came. Even after the war—maybe especially after the war. Part of the problem was how distant and detached the narration was. Towards the end, when it said that Marie-Laure was happy, I didn’t really believe it, because the tone was just as depressing as it always had been.

Upon finishing the book, I immediately jotted down my impressions in the moment. This is the beginning of what turned into a rant:





“No light in this book” is a bit of an exaggeration. Of course there was some light. It’s just that I thought a book that had “light” in the title would leave me feeling hopeful, that it would be a reminder of the good that is in humanity. But it left me feeling empty, drained, and depressed.

I’m not saying don’t read it. It was a rather beautiful book for the most part, and, I mean, you must remember it did win a Pulitzer, so it’s definitely a good book. You should go ahead and read it. And again, I do rate it 4/5. I’m just not in love, and I’m not satisfied.


Have you read this book? What was your opinion?

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22 thoughts on “Review: All the Light We Cannot See

  1. Great review! I agree with you about this book. Everyone was telling me to read this book and how much I would love it, and I didn’t love it. I didn’t connect with the two main characters. When all the stuff happened with Frederick (one of my favorite characters), I wrote in my notebook all in caps “Stand up Werner! Stand up!” Completely agree with your thoughts about how Werner was disappointing. My review is on my blog if you want to read it. 🙂

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  2. I tried not to read your entire review as I am just over half way through. However I am really hooked by the beauty of his words and the structure of such a powerful story. Just when I thought that I couldn’t read another book on WW11 this one comes along and keeps me engrossed.

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  3. Hi, First time visiting your blog. I love your review. I agree this book is unrelentingly depressing. I liked Werner, not because he was a likeable person, but because reading about him gave me insight into how someone can get press-ganged into becoming a monster because of popular opinion. I’ve always thought “Why on earth didn’t normal everyday people in Germany stand up and say NO! this is not ok?” Books like this help me understand “how” it can happen. I still don’t agree with the “why”, but at least I can wrap my head around the “how”. If that even makes sense. 🙂

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  4. I have a special relationship with Pulitzer books 😀 Haven’t read them all but ones I have, I have like even if they weren’t good ( most of them are kind of depressing actually o.O)

    I really really liked this book. But then Werner…did Doerr have to make him walk into that field…
    About the title, I mean it’s almost ironic. Made me think of a line from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” Maybe that same twisted logic was present here.

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    1. It’s funny, any time a book has received any kind of recognition, I go into it with a “who am I to judge” kind of mentality. It’s hard to say how I’d feel about books without their awards. Another thing: not just Pulitzer winners, but /most/ generally-agreed-upon great works of literature happen to be very depressing. How many feel-good classics have you read recently? Personally, I haven’t read any.

      I cannot tell you how much denial I was in about what happened to Werner. Up until the very last page I had this weird idea that he was going to show up at some point and there was a reasonable explanation. Clearly, I’ve been watching too much Sherlock…

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      1. I’m not always a fan of literary awards, especially Nobel prize is often just absurd. I’m like whyy… Hmm you mentioned Les Mis in your other post did you like it? That was a feel good classic for me. Also hmm The Misanthrope, Three Musketeers. But true, I think it was a trend back then to end books in a very dramatic way. Yeah me too!! I was like it had to be someone else… Sherlock is one fantastic show!! But waiting for series 4… unreal.

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      2. I don’t think awards really help readers except to bias them/make them feel guilty if they don’t like a book. But I guess it’s nice if you’re the author.

        Hah, I’m laughing quietly because I’m completely obsessed with Les Mis, so yes, I did like it! 🙂 I guess I wouldn’t call it feel-good though because it also had some really dark things in it. It left me feeling hopeful, but it wasn’t an all-round-happy book. Haven’t read the other two yet, so I cannot comment on those.

        Gah. I’ve almost given up on series 4. One time my brother came bursting into my room to tell me that he’d heard some news about Sherlock. I was so excited and asked him what it was. He said, “Series 4 should come out in time for Benedict Cumberbatch’s great grandson to play the role.” Then he walked away laughing. Not gonna lie, it kinda hurt. 😛

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      3. Haha hmm true, and to hmm support book snobs. I can’t imagine how it must be for authors. They don’t get paid that much usually and then there’s all of us readers judging them o.O Yea! ❤ Glad you are, I just love it! Was it sad- well yes but it had a happy ending…for some characters. Awww hahaha your brother was so mean! XD And don't lose hope…at least wiki says it's scheduled for 2017

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  5. This is one of my FAVORITE BOOKS but I’d have to agree with you on the light point. I thought that the author could have spared the reader all the devastation and at least given us some glimpse of hope for the characters, because for me knowing how unhappy a character is can be almost as draining as knowing that a friend/family member is upset. Too much attachment, probably, but I can’t help it :). The one thing that I will say is that the writing in this book is incredible, and the metaphors are stunning. Totally deserving of a Pulitzer!


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  6. Thank you for this review. Yes, I did have a feeling it would be depressing. But you say the writing was beautiful, and the book stayed with you. These may be reasons enough to read the book.

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