Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See By Anthony Doerr

“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” 

-Anthony Doerr

As the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2015, All the Light We Cannot See is a novel of a million dimensions. Told through distinct voices, each enduring their own trials and tribulations during the reality of World War II, this novel is one that has remained in the minds of readers since the moment it hit shelves. However, if you’re feeling a little apprehensive about picking this one up, may this review be a helpful guide!

The Characters

This is a story about a boy named Werner, a girl named Marie-Laure, and a man named Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. These characters are constructed lovingly. They absolutely captivate with their respective charms as well as their vices. Doerr created real people—people with faults and fears that we believe and can relate to. Some novels try to humanize their characters by giving them thorny dispositions, or strange foibles like vampirism. Somehow, Doerr manages to fault his characters whilst also glorifying them. By the end of this story, we feel deeply connected to these people; we fear them, love them, and ache for them like family.

This book is also about Frau Elena, Volkheimer, Etienne, Marie-Laure’s papa, Madame Manec, Jutta, and Frederic. Doerr says, “That kind of stuff [POV shifts] would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.”

Though “minor” characters, there is nothing insignificant or lacking about these people. Doerr paints them with just as much vibrancy as he does the “main” characters. Unlike some novel’s minor characters, these are never two-dimensional. They come together to knit a heart-wrenching and inspiring canvas; a microcosm of humanity at its best, worst, and its every-day.

The Plot(s)

The premise of this book is incredibly simple: it follows various characters living in Europe throughout the years of World War II. The plot is broken into three basic segments:

  1. Werner’s story
  2. Marie-Laure’s story
  3. Major Reinhold von Rumpel’s story

Each of their individual stories are equally simple:

  1. get out of his coal-mining hometown
  2. stay out of reach of the Nazis
  3. fulfill his duties as an enlisted man to the Führer

However, there is so much color and texture to each story. You can feel the sunlight filtering in the coal-dusted orphanage windows as Werner teaches himself about radios; the leaves crunch on the Parisian sidewalk under your boots as Marie-Laure follows her papa to the museum; and the frustration of searching and not knowing building within von Rumpel.

This is a story about humanity: breath and sound and touch are what build a life, thus, this is what we are given through Doerr’s plots. We are given the gift of years in these people’s lives.

“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

-Anthony Doerr

Though it is a story about WWII, Doerr never strays into melodrama or theatrics. The worlds and lives he builds are whole, honest, and at every point believable.

The Writing Style

With accolades like the Pulitzer Prize and a title like All the Light We Cannot See, one would expect rather formal language, perhaps even complex and flowery. Or that very dry tone that seems to permeate much of modern literature. You know that sound… the language that reads thus:

‘I didn’t see it coming. I never seemed to see anything coming in those days. I was a different person. I couldn’t hep it.’

(This is a made-up example of that vague and aloof tone we’re growing accustomed to.)

You do not find this in All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr writes genuinely. His characters are humble folk in extraordinary situations—situations brought about by war. At least, that’s half of the equation. As the story progresses, we come to find that Doerr is pressing for a point: it’s not only the circumstances that are remarkable, but it is also the people. These simple people prove that they are human by their fears and their willingness to fall into a flawed system for personal security and prosperity’s sake.

“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?” 

-Anthony Doerr

But when pressed—really pushed to the limit—these characters rise and transform to the inspired and sublime. Doerr reveals these ideas slowly and with relish. His language reflects the characters: authentic and dynamic—full of simmering life and color. You do not want to miss this one.


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Featured image via Jennifer Lyn King


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