“All the Light We Cannot See”, a fantastic book

August 25, 2022 • 1:00 pm

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, was published in 2014, and I hadn’t heard of it until an old friend recommended it two weeks ago—as did his wife. It turned out to be the best book of fiction I’ve read this year, and perhaps in the last several years. It is a tour de force: mesmerizing, unbelievably inventive, and the kind of book I can’t read before I go to sleep because I just want to keep reading. I finished the book last night and my thoughts are still full of it and of the scenes as I imagined them. (Like everyone, I form a picture in my mind’s eye as each place or character is introduced.)

The book interweaves the stories of two characters, jumping back and forth in time from the beginning of WWII until 1974, with no straight temporal sequence—except that the two stories unfold in parallel, and in very short chapters.

One of the two subjects is a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, daughter of the key-keeper in a big Parisian museum, and the other a German boy, Werner, an orphan ultimately coerced into becoming a German soldier. They’re surrounded by a rich panoply of other characters, including Werner’s sister Jutta and Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne. 

The two protagonists are connected at the beginning only because when Marie-Laure and Werrner were children, Etienne broadcast the writings of his own brother on a homemade radio transmitter in the French seaside town of Saint-Malo. Way over in Germany, Jutta and Werner (an amateur radio fanatic) could hear those broadcasts on a homemade receiver, ethralled by the beautiful science scenarios described by Etienne. (Science, by the way, plays a big role in this book, from Marie-Laure’s fascination with mollusks to Werner’s fascination with radios. Even Darwin makes a few appearances in Etienne’s broadcasts.)

I can see that this will become way too long if I even try to summarize the plot without spoilers, so let me be brief.  As the Germans enter Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee the city, the latter entrusted with a priceless diamond from the museum, tasked with keeping it out of Nazi hands. They wind up in Saint-Malo, taking refuge with Etienne and Madame Menec, Etienne’s housekeeper.

As the war proceeds, Werner becomes an expert in locating covert radio transmissions, but he’s not your average Nazi—he is empathic and kind and arrives at his job through coercion. (The mixture of good and bad in people is one of the book’s themes.) When the Allies invade France, Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories begin to converge as the German is sent to Saint-Malo to pinpoint covert Resistance radio broadcasts made by Marie-Laure. The war ends, people die, and the story fast-forwards to 1974, when only one protagonist is left. The theme of loss plays out on multiple levels, including that of the diamond, and one closes this book with a bittersweet feeling and perhaps an extra bit of moisture in the eye.

The writing is beautiful—simple but evocative—and the story, while complex, never fails to be convincing.

If you like fiction at all, you must read this book. It won the Pulitzer price in 2018, and deservedly so. I believe one reader also recommended it here, while another didn’t like it. But I can’t imagine disliking this book—not if you read fiction.

It’s worthwhile reading the Wikipedia page on this book to see its genesis (a man cursing his cellphone) and why it took ten years to write. Doerr explicitly wanted to write a war story that, while set in war, was not about war. The research behind the story is immense. There’s also a mention that Netflix is making the novel into a four-part movie series.

Here’s Saint-Malo, a place I’ve never been. I couldn’t envision the city as I read the book, and am glad to see it now. The town has been rebuilt, as much of it was destroyed by bombing during the war.

Photo by Sabine de Villeroy

42 thoughts on ““All the Light We Cannot See”, a fantastic book

  1. I loved it as well, and was mesmerized by it. I listened to the audio version during commutes (when that was still a thing). I should reread it in print (or electronically).

    Doerr has a new book out. Since I liked this one so much I also wonder about his latest. Or works before.

    1. Yes, I wonder why he hasn’t turned it into a movie, given his talents on that obscure “Game of Thrones” series. (Referring to City of Thieves, which I recently re-read).

  2. I did not hate it – not sure if I said I did? I enjoyed it, but was not starstruck if you catch my drift. I do find however that most fiction is forgotten by me fairly quickly. On the plus side I can re-read novels & enjoy them again. But then I am a barbarian! I still prefer non-fiction.

    We read it as ‘lablit’ for the Royal Institution Fiction Lab probably about 5 years ago. In fact a friend on the group who read it really slowly said it was like a fine wine so he did not want too much at a time. He is REALLY hard to please, so that is some praise. He could not bring himself yo read the bit about beating the prisoner though.

    Glad you enjoyed it!

    1. I do have a terrible memory for my own life. I suddenly suppose this is connected. It is not as if I cannot remember other stuff! Memory is so strange…

  3. I just finished reading it, due to your having mentioned it previously. I too loved it. I was sad to finish it, but then it’s a sad book, as all serious books are.

  4. I loved the book also. I highly recommend his next book, Cloud Cuckoo Land, about the power of books. It similarly weaves and relates multiple stories, this time over many centuries. All the Light … is a better book, but Cloud is magnificent in its own way.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. Do you happen to like the fantasy genre, like Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones? The Game of Thrones TV series is probably my favorite ever and the books do not disappoint either. Now they have a new series (House of the Dragon) whose first episode just came out.

    1. I read Lord of the Rings at about 13-14, and loved it. I watched part of one of the movies but didn’t like it. I’ve seen part of “Game of Thrones” but wasn’t thrilled, nor was I by watching a season of “Vikings” on t.v. I don’t much like fantasy but did love Lord of the Rings when I read it.

      What I would prefer to watch, and have, is “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad”, and am gearing up to watch “The Wire”

      1. I also read the Lord of The Rings as a teenager and liked it. Strangely enough, I enjoy the movies better than the books, perhaps because I watched them before I started reading the series. The soundtrack by Howard Shore is one of the best ever. I also watched Breaking Bad and really enjoyed it. Haven’t seen The Sopranos yet.

        1. I read LotR aged 18, & re-read recently, but could not get past Tolkein’s Roman Catholicism which impregnates so much of the theme, Also he could not write conversation.

      2. I loved The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but The Wire is the best of the bunch — as densely plotted as a 19th century novel. It rewards close concentration in kind. Plus, atop its other bounty, five versions of “Way Down in the Hole” — four covers and, in Season 2, Mr. Waits’s original.

        1. Agree with all you just wrote. In fact I just got the whole set of Wire DVDs back from my daughter yesterday, and plan to watch them again this winter. Watched them when they were first on TYV.

      3. I thought Vikings was very good. I was reading a nonfiction book, Children of Ash and Elm, about Vikings and it mentioned that the series got quite a few things right.

        Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad’s prequel, just finished and it is awesome. Really good characters, writing, cinematography, and actors.

        1. Better Call Saul is great, too. I’ve been a Bob Odenkirk fan since his days as a comedy duo with David Cross. But I never realized the depth of his acting chops until this show. And Rhea Seehorn as his sometime partner and fulltime love interest is fantastic, too. She’s gorgeous, sure, but there’s much more to her than that. She’s got character and that slightly lived-in look that I find irresistible. Plus, no one has ever made those pants suits and skirts that women lawyers wear look better (and I’ve seen a lot of those outfits). 🙂

          1. A theory, which is mine, great comedians make the best actors: Robin Williams being the de facto example. Odenkirk has a fine acting future ahead of him, and he’s going to star in one of Gilligan’s next projects. As well as Giancarlo Esposito (Fring the “Chicken Man”) who will star in another Gilligan show. Can’t wait.

            Yeah, Seehorn is fabulous. I love her voice and what you describe as character, I’ll just say charisma…that ineffable quality of evoking presence and undo attention without having to do much more than enter a room. I can’t wait to see where she ends up next.

          2. As the saying goes: dying is easy; comedy is hard. Inside every comic is a serious dramatic actor itching to get out. In addition to Robin Williams and Steve Martin and Jamie Foxx, think of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or of Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems.

          3. Uncut Gems! So, so good. And we both forgot the genius of Bill Murray who could sort of tow the line in the same movie (like Williams and Martin and Foxx). But Lost in Translation that’s a Murray masterpiece (though I have friends who deemed it boring, and I shouldn’t be friends with them anymore). Tough crowd, I gots 🙂

          4. Chicken Man and Mike Ehrentraut may be my two favorite characters in BB and Saul. Maybe because I’m a hetero female, Kim has never done much for me. Her character doesn’t ring true. Skyler and Marie as well. Marie’s hubby, the cop (blanking on name?), I thought was excellenf.

          5. I was mystified at Wexler’s u-turn on the highway at the end of the midseason finale. She was just too obsessed with fucking-over Hamlin, and I wasn’t convinced of her obsession. Hamlin was a beneficiary, and now, because of Saul/Jimmy’s perceived grievances, she wants to destroy him? Just didn’t ring true, to borrow your phrase.

          6. Not sure I understand what you mean by Hamlin being a beneficiary? He was good to Kim, wasn’t he? Not sure why she’d want to screw him over, either. And then poor Howard was in the wrong place at the wrong time vis-a-vis Lalo.

      4. Breaking Bad was phenomenal. Had to stop the episode Ozymandias and didn’t watch for a week to pay my respects! I enjoyed The Wire, but found it a little dated when I finally got round to watching it.

        1. Dated? I suppose so, in the same sense that Dickens and Tolstoy and Balzac may seem dated to 21st century readers.

  6. I’m afraid that I have gone off contemporary fiction. A lot of it bears the stamp of a university ‘creative writing’ course; even more shows the signs of solemn historical research, which somehow doesn’t get turned into interesting prose. And of course, these days, any attempt by any author to imagine what it might be like to be a person of a different sex, colour, culture or class is utterly beyond the pale.

    Still, this book looks good, and PCC(E)’s imprimatur is not to be ignored. I’ll look out for it.

  7. Glad you liked it. I got on google earth and “walked” around Saint-Malo. Yes, much of it was destroyed but some of the addresses still exist and you can easily tell rebuilt sections based on the look of the stone.

  8. I never read fiction recommended to me by friends because tastes in fiction vary wildly and because I had bad experiences with a couple of books that I read and hated (including Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; I HATE dialogue written in dialect, and I prefer fiction with little or no dialogue at all). If I ever see the Doerr book in a bookshop I will check out the first page or so and see if it hooks me. That’s all I had to do with Lolita in 1957 when I read the first page of the first edition at a friend’s place in Paris. I audited a couple of Nabokov’s classes at Cornell and have no memory of them, and learned later he read from notes. No wonder I was bored. But his books do not bore. He and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are in my opinion, the two greatest 20th century writers. Philip Roth and Katharine Anne Porter and Virginia Woolf are close.

    1. Love most of Philip Roth, and everything by Nabokov. Lucky you to have actually seen and heard the man, even if he read from notes. Unlike Jerry, I found the Doerr book really smarmy.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like a book I would really enjoy.
    I am now 62nd in line to borrow it. My library has 6 copies so the estimated wait is 20 weeks.

  10. Complete agreement; the creative crafting of the story and the brilliant use of words make this one of the best I’ve read in years (my lovely wife agrees).

  11. If you’re interested in war-time related fiction, I’d also throw in a recommendation for Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” (the first Chechnya War, I think), and “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” a series of inter-related stories about 20th century Russia.

  12. Have put it in my “to read” list, which currently stands at 120 books! Will prioritise though as sounds like an excellent read and I also hadn’t heard of it (aside from a mention here not so long ago).

    Just finished Shuggie Bain which, as a Booker winner, I know you’ll get round to. A terrific read, but you’ll have probably heard that it’s very bleak. Be interested to hear how you go with it.

  13. I might have mentioned earlier Thomas Flanagan’s epic The Year of the French (first of an Irish trilogy, this one taking place in 1789.) It’s got a sh*tload of characters, most of them real people, and I’ve been taking copious notes to keep the Papists from the Protestants and the peasants from the gentry. So I get to page 100 (of 500) on my kindle and suddenly realize there’s a whole cast of characters at the very END of the book🙀plus a couple of excellent maps of County Mayo. Better late than never. Excellent book.

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