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A Boy, A Girl, A War

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr (Harper Collins, $24.99)
Reviewed by Francis Cook

All the Light pbk.inddRecently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of two children reaching adolescence during the Second World War.

Werner, an orphan in Germany, is bright and passionate about radios. He gets accepted into a prestigious school, and later drafted into the army to triangulate radio transmissions from partisans. Marie-Laure, meanwhile, is a blind girl growing up in Paris and Saint-Malo whose father makes miniature models of their neighbourhood to help her navigate outside.

We follow their stories in short, sharp chapters which make the sprawling novel immensely readable. Werner’s time at school is marked by a tragic incident which causes his best friend irreparable brain damage. The event heralds Werner’s induction into the survival-of-the-fittest Nazi mentality for which he is trepidatious but nonetheless complicit.

Marie-Laure’s father works as a locksmith in the museum of natural history in Paris. He is charged with the protection of the “sea of flames”, a precious diamond (and central metaphor) which is rigorously pursued by determined, overly villainous Nazi jewel hunter. They escape to Saint-Malo where his shell-shocked uncle takes them in. Marie-Laure’s father is captured and imprisoned and she is drawn into the French resistance using, you guessed it, radio transmissions.

As a history graduate who spent three years studying the war and the Holocaust, I am normally fatigued by war fiction. All the Light We Cannot See surprised me by taking a controversial direction. Werner and his comrades are presented as very human characters doing what they think they are meant to do. Their complicity in the Reich is startlingly accurate to historical events. After all, these were young boys indoctrinated into Nazism at a tender age and broken down by tough military training. The Holocaust is only alluded to by the strange activity of the trains passing. The bad-guy Nazi narrative will be problematic for many readers, but the novel speaks to truth in this respect.

Marie-Laure’s segments of the book are the strongest. Her character is exceptionally realized and disarmingly touching. When she can no longer go to the beach, she explores a tunnel full of snails to satiate her curiosity for the natural world. The interplay between her resilience and vulnerability leads to tensely fraught moments of danger, escape, and survival. When the characters finally meet, after over 400 pages, they are together for mere moments, highlighting the fragility and adversity of their environment.

All the Light We Cannot See is occasionally let down by average writing and overly sentimental segments. One moment sees Werner and his comrade break out of a collapsed building, inspired by hearing Marie-Laure play ‘Clare de Lune’. The scene is cynically cinematic. After they get out, there’s even a “go get em’ champ” kick-up-the-butt as Werner sets off to find Marie-Laure. Joe Wright would be bouncing in his seat.

Rough around the edges, too long, a metaphor unnecessarily explained at length, it is nonetheless an incredible achievement and a beautiful book in spite of its flaws. Its quick pace makes it a page turner well suited to a holiday read, and the tragedy underlying the narrative will resonate with readers who have been touched by the war.

Francis Cook, a reporter, studied History, gaining a first class honours in 2014. He is interested in politics, music and popular culture. His thesis looked at nuclear themes in Japanese film history.