Home / Book Reviews / ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE: Reviewed By Sue Blue
Sue Blue


Photography by Val Schoger -

All the Light We Cannot See (2014), by Anthony Doerr, combines history, science, and mystery to tell the story of two teenagers who survive war-torn Europe during World War II. Told from the perspectives of a blind French girl and a German child-soldier who is an expert in radio transmission, the novel is rich in sensory details as well as revelations about life during wartime.

The novel opens on August 7, 1944 in the German occupied French city of Saint-Malo two months after D-Day, with the approach of Allied bombers. Leaflets fall from the sky warning French citizens to evacuate before the deadline passes and bombing begins. In short, alternating chapters, Doerr tells the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, beginning when they were children, until their lives intersect briefly during the bombing in August 1944.

Six-year-old Marie-Laure, the motherless daughter of the principal locksmith of the Museum National d’-Histoire Naturelle, is rapidly losing her eye sight and her clever and devoted father builds her a tiny, detailed model of their Paris neighborhood so that she can memorize the streets and buildings and be able to find her way. Eventually, she and her father flee on foot across France to find sanctuary with uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo, her father carrying the museum’s huge legendary diamond, the “Sea of Flames,” which is the focus of Hitler’s search for treasures.

Meanwhile, orphaned Werner and his younger sister Jutta are growing up in the German mining town of Zollverein. He is a genius with radios as well as physics and math and is taken by Hitler’s army to be a soldier at the age of 14. Through Werner’s experiences, we learn of the horrors of being a teenage soldier-in-training and of the propaganda designed to make the boys killing machines. Working with a German technical sciences professor, Werner is “intoxicated” by the technical possibilities and stories of magnificent victories. Yet the voice of his little sister remains with him: “Do you know what atrocities means?” and “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”

During the course of the novel, we meet some characters who act with extreme, unthinkable cruelty, and many others who demonstrate courage, loyalty, endurance, and love. We are reminded that incredible kindness and courage endure, sometimes in the most unexpected times and places.

When Marie-Laure finally meets Werner, she tells him that people told her she was brave when she lost her sight and when her father left, “But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” He replies, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.” I found this exchange a poignant reminder that some people who do brave, generous things often don’t consider that they had any other choice. And in the final few pages, Doerr reports on the lives of the survivors, right up through 2014.

This book was one of the New York Times Book Review’s ten best books in 2014, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and a National Book Award finalist.

About Sue Blue

Susan Blue was an assistant professor of English at Gulf Coast State College for 25 years, teaching composition and literature. Today, she likes to restore old houses, paint both pictures and walls, read books, attempt to grow things in the yard, and travel with her husband, Rob. They have three children who live in Panama City, New York City, and Marina Del Rey, California.

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