All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a story about Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner Pfennig, a white-haired German boy who lives in an orphanage just outside of Essen, Germany. Alternating between flashbacks and the present, the novel follows the childhoods of Werner and Marie-Laure and their experiences when World War II breaks out. Throughout the novel, Doerr laces in the stories and perspectives of other characters, turning the book into more of an intricate narrative rather than a flat, double-sided story.
Uncharacteristic of many of the World War II-era novels that I’ve read, this novel contains virtually no mention of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Rather, it chooses to focus on the more subtle aspects of war, including the difficulties faced by the citizens themselves — the air raids, the poverty, rationing and the lack of resources. It focuses on the dangers that citizens in occupied countries faced, and instead of focusing on the deadly situations of soldiers, it chooses to focus on specific military missions meant to tamp down the resistance.
One of my favorite things about this novel is its exquisite imagery. With its descriptions of the smells of the market stalls and of debris piled up on the sides of the street and beautiful spring days laced with the smells of cherry blossoms, I felt like I was there.
Another component I enjoyed is how all of the characters’ stories interlock. While I expected and hoped Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives to intertwine, perhaps ending with them falling in love and living happily ever after, the novel reminds us that war is very real and very harrowing. While some like to romanticize war, in reality, there is nothing to romanticize. Doerr’s novel helped me view war for the multifaceted thing that it is, by showing me a personal glimpse into the lives of those afflicted by it.