This review does not contain spoilers.
Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorise it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.
Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.
At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.
Anthony Doerr’s writing is beautiful. And dense. It took me almost a month and a half to finish, even though I was utterly enchanted by the lyrical prose. In an oft-quoted interview in 2014, Doerr admitted to knowing his writing is lyrical, and offered his short chapters and balanced white space as compensation for a demanding read.
I’m thrilled that Doerr took that approach because, without it, I may not have enjoyed this book as much. The fleeting chapters make the book, keeping the reader engaged with the parallel lives of main characters Marie-Laure and Werner. Though they seem separated by age, circumstance, and war, each chapter is a tiny step towards each other and an explanation as to how their lives are entwined.
In an effort to keep a slow-moving story exciting, the book features periodic jumps between Werner and Marie-Laure’s day to day lives and the burning of Saint-Malo. Like the rest of the book, these jumps started off slow. But as the action picked up in 1944, I found myself reading faster, desperate to return to the brief, cliffhanger interludes and then even more desperate to reach the point where past and present merged.
There is one thing that a lot of people may not be able to get past. It’s surprisingly subtle and I couldn’t actually put my finger on it until I had almost finished writing this review. It’s the emotional connection with the characters. As incredible as Doerr’s descriptive language is, it applies almost exclusively to the setting and, now that I think about it … I don’t know if I care about Marie-Laure and Werner. I want to. This book was a great experience for me but I knew there was something missing and now that I know what it is it’s really bugging me.
I also have mixed feelings about the last part of the book. Although I appreciate loose endings being tied up, the book ends up feeling almost too closed, too prescriptive. The writing becomes less illustrative and more matter of fact, like the magic has faded away. Thankfully, the rest of the book—even with the character issues—is evocative enough to outweigh a lacklustre ending.
All the Light We Cannot See is a stunning piece of literature, and a slow burn. If the size is daunting and you feel the need to take a break, the plot and the writing is at least memorable and easy to return to after interludes with other books. Though some parts are hit and miss, I did really enjoy this book overall. With a slight hint of magic, beautiful writing, and an incredible setting, All the Light We Cannot See was an engaging and satisfying read.
I rate it ★★★★