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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

As soon as I started reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I asked myself why I bothered even trying to write at all? Doerr’s language is poetic and evocative; it transports the reader to another time and place. All the senses are engaged, including the heart. Stunningly lyrical writing.

After reading a few more pages, I found myself inspired to be better writer. Not that I have to write like Doerr, but rather that I can dig deeper into my craft to become the best writer that I can be.

Which is all to say that All the Light We Cannot See is a transformative novel.

Set during World War II, it follows the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner Pfennig on separate trajectories that will eventually converge.

Sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is blind. Her father, Daniel, the keeper of keys at a museum in Paris, makes puzzle boxes for her to figure out. He also constructs detailed maps of her neighborhood which she can learn by touch, thereby allowing her to explore the outside world.

After the German army invades Paris, Marie-Laure and Daniel escape to St Malo, where they live with his eccentric Uncle Etienne, a recluse who used to broadcast his brother’s science lectures from the attic of the house.

It is these lectures which Werner, a young German orphan, chances upon one night on a broken radio. They open his curious mind to explore more deeply into science and electronics. When his skills are discovered, Werner is sent to a boarding school which drills its students in Nazi values. Though he has little interest in Nazism, Werner is swept along by the rising tide of German Nationalism, and eventually he is drafted into the army, where his skills at radio are used to track down enemy signals.

Both Marie-Laure and Werner share inquisitive minds. Each of them shares a quickness at solving puzzles, not so much for the prize at the end, but for the process of discovery. Doerr weaves these two stories in alternating chapters. By painting short, episodic moments of their lives, Doerr manages to create a larger palate that incorporates the encroaching world war.

There is also a mystery involving a purportedly magical diamond which brings good luck to its holder but bad luck to those that person loves. Through the diamond’s symbolism, Doerr is able to raise questions about action, choice, and chance – such as, whether there is such a thing as fate or is it all merely “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world.”

If I had finished this novel last year, it would have been on my Top Ten list for 2022. Right now, it stands a very good chance of being on 2023’s Top Ten list. My only complaint is that the epilogue felt a little protracted, but that could have been because I read half the book in a single night.

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and no wonder. It is that good.

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