Having met a little controversy with his ‘overly sentimental’ portrayal of World War II, I have to say that I don’t really mind too much about what some of the critics have said about All the Light We Cannot See. Some have fact-checked Doerr’s writing and found a few geographical inaccuracies. Others have accused him of not picking a side when it comes to the War itself. If I wanted a book that did all of the above to a tee, I would be reading non-fiction. Or my school textbook. When I pick up a book – and in particular a Pulitzer Prize winning book – all I’m looking for is a great story, challenging writing, and perhaps a new perspective. As All the Light We Cannot See ticked most of these boxes, there isn’t really much for me to complain about. Except that after hitting over 300 pages and discovering there was over 200 more to go, I do wish it would have been a little shorter.
All the Light begins in Paris, where we meet Marie-Laure, a terrified six year old who has recently lost her sight. With the help of her loving father, she is given an injection of confidence, and soon finds herself walking the paths of the Jardin des Plantes to the museum where her father works. Having spent a lot of time in Paris, I loved being taken through the streets with the help of Marie Laure’s cane. I could imagine the smells, the sounds and the bustle of energy that she would have felt. Fast forward a few years, and WWII has reached the city, and Marie-Laure and her father flee, having been entrusted with a priceless precious stone from the museum. The pair find themselves taking refuge in St Malo, a seaside town in France, where they stay with Marie-Laure’s Great Uncle.
In parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner, a young and ‘feathery’ German boy who is groomed by the Nazi party thanks to his talent for fixing transmitter radios. He is sent away from his sister and the oprhanage where he grew up, and endures the gruelling regime of Hitler’s Youth Camp. He then joins the army on the front line in France, tasked with tracking the transmissions of the French Resistance.
Without giving too much away, it becomes a matter of time before Marie-Laure and Werner come across each other, and there’s a fantastic, pensive build-up until they do. This is short-lived, however, for when they do meet it’s a little anti-climactic, and I was already getting a little restless. This is redeemed slightly by the flip forward to the 1970s, and then to 2014, where we reconvene with some characters, and more loose ends are tied up.
All in all, the detail in All the Light We Cannot See is second to none. Not having an advanced history degree, I didn’t notice any of the mistakes that other reviewers have pointed out, but I also did have enough knowledge of WWII to appreciate the characters and their development. For me, the ending could have come a little sooner. But overall, All the Light was a thoughtful page-turner with those fantastically short chapters that you just can’t stop reading – and a clever little nod to the parallels in life that tend to go unnoticed.