All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a novel set in WWII through the eyes of opposite sides. Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith for a museum. Werner is an orphan boy with a knack of fixing radios, making him a favourite when he enters the Hitler Youth Academy. The two characters become distantly entangled together through an old radio broadcast and fatefully meet during the ravages of war.
Doerr’s writing is vibrant, detailed, and rich with expressions. He brings to life a complex story of war, losses, and morality.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
I didn’t particularly love Marie-Laure’s story (because I was far too interested in reading about Werner’s life in Nazi Germany), but it offered a fair insight into life as a civilian during the war. What I disliked was the never-ending focus on that cursed jewel she and her father end up being responsible for after they flee Paris. It just seemed out of place in a war story- too fantastical, too unreal.
I also found certain parts of Marie-Laure’s life to be boring. She was a blind girl who was forbidden to leave the house. So, she turned to books and her mentally unstable uncle to pass her days. That was cool and all – definitely heightened the imagery and vicarious living I experienced reading this novel – but again, I was just way more intrigued by Werner’s story. This is unfortunate because I found myself liking Marie-Laure and the other characters she is involved with.
When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?
The Old Ladies Resistance Club
Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if toward the lips of God.
The Old Ladies Resistance Club is comprised of residents on Marie-Laure’s street. This is during a time when all radios have been seized by the government. Through the secret radio stored in her uncle’s attic, Marie-Laure becomes a member of a “resistance” group that helps sends codes and other messages to people during the war. This is a great reference to the power of radios. Historically, we see how the radio plays a major role in Hitler’s climb to power. Through this novel, we also see how a simple broadcast inspires Werner’s dreams and ultimately encourages him to save Marie-Laure’s life.
The Old Ladies Resistance Club is a small dose of “all the light” I could see as a reader. I see the willpower of normal people, the small efforts that contribute to something bigger than intended, and the ray of hope that seeps through misery and loss. Any reader will be able to catch onto this emotionally stimulating and passionate theme. The impacts of war both damage and inspire us to be kinder to each other and to fight in any way possible.
“I will not.”
When Werner’s friend, Frederick, refuses to dump water onto a Jewish prisoner during a school assembly, he is immediately ousted and abused. It takes immense courage and a very strong spirit to stick up for what you believe is right in Nazi Germany. Frederick is one of the characters who stole my heart in this book and his repeated statement of “I will not” is what made my heart sink.
Werner is smart. He becomes top of his class in engineering and he is clever enough to know what to say and what not to say. Because of this, he becomes deeply conflicted with his own moral values, Frederick’s predicament, and the rest of the school. The academy saves Werner from a life of poverty in the mines and gave him the opportunity to explore his passions in radio and science. Yet, he knows he is not comfortable with the brutality placed upon himself and others.
This, she realizes, is the basis of all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.
Werner has a little bit of that “I-want-to-save-my-own-arse” mindset, which makes him even more relatable and humane as a character. He matures before his time- a sentiment that is commonly shared among children growing up in this era. Both Werner and Marie-Laure lose their innocence early on due to the war. They experience suffering and sadness that are forever rooted in their memories. These memories affect them even when life improves in the years after the war.
The ending of All the Light We Cannot See is nostalgic and bittersweet, and I believe it is just right for this kind of a story. Doerr grapples readers by tying the fates of two different children together and shines light on both the dark and bright sides of humanity.