First published in 2014
My rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Of It:
One of the best WWII stories I've ever read.
The Long Of It:
"All the Light We Cannot See" is historical fiction at its best. Doerr masterfully packs unforgettable characters, rich descriptions and beautiful writing into a gripping and unique WWII story. I was impressed with the perfect balance he achieves between light, heartfelt, interesting moments and scenes that vividly bring home the sickening horrors of war.
Much of the story is told by two main characters, Marie-Laure, a blind French teenager who loves books and the ocean, and Werner, a brilliant German orphan with a knack for inventions who is pushed into Hitler's army. The two are on opposite sides of the war, but fate will cross their paths at the most critical moment.
Between the major storylines of Marie-Laure and Wener -- from childhood to 1944, when things are at the worst for both of them -- are woven many fascinating details and subplots: a huge, storied, and sought-after diamond that may or may not be cursed; secret messages baked into bread loaves; a kooky but lovable old man; a sweet and wonderful boy with a passion for birds; radios; mathematics; seashells and snail shells; Jules Verne; puzzle boxes; European history; and so very much cruelty and kindness. I was amazed at the author's breadth of knowledge about things like trigonometry and the inner workings of old-fashioned radios.
What set the book over the top for me was Doerr's gorgeous writing and rich descriptions, which were only enhanced by the casting of a blind character. Some of my favorite passages were when young Marie-Laure was exploring the Paris Museum of Natural History where her father worked. Though she couldn't see it with her eyes, I could picture detail after detail in my mind as she took in smells -- bone dust, chemical preservatives, paper -- and textures -- the curves of a shell, the smoothness of a beetle, the softness of a feather. Marie-Laure's blindness also added to the intensity of many scenes. Can you imagine being trapped in your house, not able to see a thing or even tell if it's night or day, when someone comes in searching for you -- and will not hesitate to kill you if he finds you? I was on the edge of my seat with stress!
Something else I loved about this novel was the easy flow to the writing. For some reason, I imagined it would be a heavy, long book but, even at 530 pages, it was a quick read. I absolutely blazed through it. This was aided by the very short chapters -- sometimes only a page or two each -- that made the book nearly impossible to put down. I can't tell you the number of times I said, "Just one more chapter. Oh wait, this one's only three pages, might as well read that too..."
"All the Light We Cannot See" is a must-read, not just for fans of WWII stories, but for fans of human stories. Anyone who likes fiction should enjoy this book, which is fully deserving of all the accolades it received.