Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr; Scribner Publishing; May 2014; 531 pp
Author Anthony Doerr was traveling in a New York subway when he had the idea for his new book "All the Light We Cannot See." A fellow traveler was overly upset when he was unable to get reception on his cell phone. Doerr reflected on the magic of radio and how amazing it is that we can hear the voice of someone many miles from us; he decided this would be the inspiration for his next book. He began with the idea of a boy trapped somewhere, listening to the voice of an unknown young girl reading to him over the radio.
While traveling in Europe, Doerr discovered the beautiful walled city of Saint-Malo, on the north coast of France, which was almost entirely destroyed by allied bombs in 1944. He did some research and immediately knew he wanted to set his novel in this city, during the time of the bombing. He was also fascinated by what happened during the German invasion of Paris in 1940 when the French worked to save as much art and natural science objects as they could from the Germans. This became the third inspiration for his novel.
In "All the Light We Cannot See" Doerr weaves the parallel stories of Werner, a German boy, with Marie-Laure, a young French girl. Marie-Laure, who lives with her father in Paris, has been blind since age six; her father is the locksmith for the thousands of locks at the Museum of Natural History. When Marie-Laure turns twelve, the Nazis take over Paris and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo to live with his reclusive uncle Etienne; in their possession may be the museum's most valuable jewel.
Werner, a young orphan in a mining town in Germany, discovers that he has an aptitude for the workings of radios. His hope is that this expertise will keep him from working in the mines. He ends up in an elite academy for Hitler Youth where he becomes an expert at building and repairing radios. As a young German soldier his skills win him an assignment to track the Nazi resistance by finding illegal radio transmissions.
Eventually, Werner's path crosses with Marie-Laure's when he arrives in Saint-Malo to locate radio transmissions that are coming from somewhere in that city. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of those broadcasts; Etienne's transmissions are to aid the resistance but Marie-Laure is simply reading aloud one of her favorite novels, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which intrigues Werner. He is drawn to her voice even as he is trapped in a basement, under the rubble of a bombed-out hotel near the spot where Marie-Laure is broadcasting. By this time, Marie-Laure is alone, hiding from a German soldier who is after the valuable jewel.
"All the Light We Cannot See" has suspense, interesting historical aspects and a compelling storyline. What makes the novel such a great read, though, is the manner in which it is written. Doerr tells his story in a beautiful, tender way, while skillfully capturing the sights, emotions and sounds of wartime. Werner is depicted as a good person who has to make choices between opportunity and morality. Marie-Laure is a beautiful, thoughtful young girl whose attentive father has done everything he can to ensure her independence in spite of her blindness.
Ten years in the writing, this epic novel touches on a variety of subjects including the power of the voice via the radio, valuable gems, mollusks, wooden miniatures and locks. Even more, it tells a rich story of kindness, love, fear, beauty and grace. "All the Light We Cannot See" is a book that will stay with readers long after it is read.