Anthony Doerr: “All the Light We Cannot See”

For Darlene Fackleman, who radiates light wherever she goes

A few people I know have resisted reading Anthony Doerr’s 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, because it is set during World War II. It would be too depressing, they say. World War II was too horrific. The events in Nazi Germany, in particular, were too harrowing.

How could I disagree? The Second World War was a terrible, terrible tragedy, and with this novel set in Germany and France, it is bound to include some rough stuff.

Yes, the main characters – Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc – do very much encounter hardship, heart-breaking loss, sorrow, deprivation, even – nearly – in Werner’s case, degradation.

How could I convey to my friends what compelling stories this novel tells? How could I convince them that we come to care deeply about Werner and Marie-Laure? How could I possibly explain that the book – despite (or perhaps because of) its World War II setting – is ultimately life-affirming? For to me, this novel says loud and clear that people are good, that people care and want to care, that “unconditional love” – as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said – “will have the final word.”

This novel – the second by American writer Anthony Doerr – has so much going for it. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story: a stone that is cursed – or magical – or both. There are two parallel stories of children growing up in pre-war, then war-torn Europe. These children – Werner, the German orphan, and Marie-Laure, the blind French girl – are exceptional human beings, though part of Doerr’s purpose seems to be to suggest that they are not exceptional. Rather, he seems to say that as they live their lives with love and good intentions, they are brought forward to the good, the right. Even when we think Werner will lose his soul in the Nazi training school and later as part of the Nazi military, his irrepressible self shines forth. He is part of the light we cannot see – even though, as Doerr suggests, that light is everywhere.

Doerr pulls so much together, so seamlessly, so effortlessly in this dazzling breakthrough novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Electrical engineering, radio technology, the experiences of the blind, German, French, and Russian geography, natural history, mineralogy – there’s so much here. Yet you never feel as if Doerr is trotting out his research. Even though a good deal of the plot hinges on physics and mathematics, it’s so easy to understand and grasp.

For background on some of the geography and history of this beautiful book, check out resources on the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex (one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites), the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (where Marie-Laure’s father works as the master of locks), and the burning of Saint-Malo (the walled city where Marie-Laure and her father take refuge). You can learn more about Anthony Doerr at his website.

I loved reading every single word of this marvelous novel. It’s the kind of book I very much hated to have end, the kind of book that makes me want to hurry up and find another magnificent book, so I can plunge myself into a created world again, and the kind of book that makes me despair of ever finding another one as good.

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Watch:Watch Anthony Doerr read the chapter “Radio” from All the Light We Cannot See. The four-and-a-half-minute reading is set in 1935 in the German mining town of Zollverein.