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?
No. 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.
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:
I AM NOT HAPPY
THERE WAS NO LIGHT IN THIS BOOK
NO WONDER IT WAS CALLED “ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE”
I DEFINITELY DID NOT SEE IT
“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?