‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr – Child-Like Wonder

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr  (2014) – 530 pages

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‘All the Light’ has become quite a phenomenon which probably has not been commented on enough.  Who would have expected to see Anthony Doerr on the best seller lists?, but there he is.  Currently the Minneapolis Public Library has a list of 648 people waiting to check out this novel.  It is not often that you have a highly literary writer score such a success.

Now that I’ve read ‘All the Light’ I am ready to analyze this book’s success.  First I want to give you a fine example of the style of the writing.

“What mazes there are in this world, The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models . . . None more complicated than the human brain.”

 This exhilarating observation is from the blind French girl Marie-Laure who is one of the two main characters in the novel.  We meet up with Marie-Laure in the year 1934 at the age of six when she suddenly goes blind.  Her father, the master locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, builds intricate models of the streets near their home that Marie-Laure can use to find her way around the neighborhood.

The other main character is a German boy, Werner Pfennig, who is about the same age as Marie-Laure.  He develops an interest in radios at an early age due to a scientific broadcast from France hosted by Marie-Laure’s grandfather. His acuity with electronics earns him a scholarship to an elite Nazi school.

Anthony Doerr explains large parts of the surrounding world through these two young intelligent characters.  There is a child-like wonder to the writing which describes the natural miracles around us in short breathtakingly beautiful sentences.  The writing here is exquisite. We even see the severe brutality of the Nazis through the eyes of the child Werner.

        Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo

In 1940, the Germans invade France (thanks to an assist from the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson?), so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the walled seaside city of Saint-Malo.  It is here that Marie-Laure finally meets Werner in 1944 as the Allies land in France and are ready to re-take Saint-Malo.

To what do we attribute the success of ‘All the Light’?  As I’ve said before, the writing about nature is most stunning.  The whole approach of the style and the plot has a child-like clearness.  The plain story has the feel of a folk tale passed down from generation to generation.  Plausibility is not a major consideration.  Credibility is sacrificed for enchantment.

But man or woman cannot live on enchantment alone.  While reading ‘All the Light’, I longed for some world-weary cynicism like you would get from Graham Greene.  Yes, the world is wondrous and a miracle, but there is also a lot of bad stuff in this world starting with the Nazi point of view.  I longed for some dirty realism while reading ‘All the Light’.  I wanted a more complex adult view of things.

Still it is nice to see that a literary novel and Anthony Doerr are making the best seller lists.

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17 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve read reviews of “All The Light We Cannot See”, I’ve heard only positive feedback and now, after your review, I am really intrigued – the novel sounds magical. Maybe with all the cynicism in the world it is better for this story just to be full of wonder and enchantment 🙂 I need to find out on my own soon.

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  2. I’ve no issue with a book that is full of wonder and enchantment and lacks cynicism, but I’m not sure setting it in Nazi-occupied France is the best place for those particular elements. Natural wonder is all very well, but this is a particularly horrific period of history and it seems a bit odd to turn it into a childlike fable.

    Perhaps that’s why the popularity? Simplicity sells, as the rise of YA fiction sales to adults shows.

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    • Hi Max,
      Simplicity Sells, that sounds about right. That’s OK as long as it is not over-simplification. It does seem contradictory to have a novel written with child-like wonder about the brutal Nazi takeover of France
      The writing is very good in this novel; I just grew tired of the approach, but other readers may react differently.

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  3. Posted by Mij Woodward on September 8, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. 
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more”
    – July 15, 1944 Anne Frank

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    • Hi Mij,
      A wonderful quote and very appropriate for the discussion of ‘All the Light’. Thank You.

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      • Posted by Mij Woodward on September 9, 2014 at 4:03 AM

        And I thank you! I love your book blog. I visit here once a week, and enjoy your comments and ideas. One of the best book blogs I have ever come across.

        When I saw the film, Silver Linings Playbook, I was pissed. I am a mother of two sons with bipolar, who have seen the insides of jails and psych wards all their adult lives. Mental illness in loved ones is tragic, defeating. How can there be a love story and a simplistic answer to bipolar, as seen in Silver Linings Playbook? It ignored the complexity and reality of all that I had experienced.
        So, I have to admit that you guys might be right. Maybe the simplicity of All the Light does not truly fit with the horrors of WWII. Neither did some of the statements from Anne Frank. Too simplistic. Too naive.
        And yet . . . I like that Anne Frank looked up at the sky and gave us her words. I want to believe that sometimes, out of the millions of stories that can be told about WWII, maybe one of them could be uplifting in some way?

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        • Hi Mij,
          I don’t think Anne Frank was guilty of naivety – ‘I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.’ She knew exactly what was going to happen to her and millions of others. The small uplifting thing about the Anne Frank story is that her words survived, even though she did not.
          From what I remember of Silver Linings Playbook, it had a real happy unrealistic Hollywood ending. That’s the difference between Hollywood and the way things really are. I can imagine how disappointed someone who has dealt with real bipolar disorder would be by the movie.

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          • Anne Frank was writing in a terribly real situation, trying to maintain some kind of hope. That quote is heroic.

            A novel though, it’s a very different thing. If it ignores the horror in that kind of situation I think it becomes a kind of lie.

            That said, of course there are stories that are uplifting from that period. Schindler’s List and The Counterfeiters for example both feature fairly classic redemptive story arcs in a terrible context, but they don’t brush the context under the carpet (I actually don’t think either is a great movie, but I do think both are good movies).

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            • Hi Max,
              I’m not familiar with ‘The Counterfeiters’. I wonder if it had a different name over here.
              Even though the Holocaust is not mentioned once in ‘All the Light’, I don’t think Doerr is brushing it under the carpet. He does show the Nazi brutality against their own people. He just has this different story to tell.

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              • Posted by Mij Woodward on September 9, 2014 at 7:17 PM

                You raise some interesting perspectives about Anne Frank–I will give these some thought.
                Re All the Light–For me, the brutality of the Germans in WWII seemed very evident in the unfolding of the two main German characters’ stories–Von Rumpel’s, and Werner’s. Von Rumpel was doing his job, coldly carrying out duties, no matter what or whom stood in the way. With Werner, we saw his innocence as a young child, helping his little sister as best he could. His talent with radios landed him a privileged spot at a school, and we watched as he enthusiastically felt proud and patriotic. I finally “got it” about Hitler’s youth, how kids could come to participate in things that would later be judged as so wrong.
                I raised four boys. Excelling at school and sports–these are what kids want to do, naturally. Werner was acting like a normal kid. Werner’s eventual maturity and comprehension about what was going on in Germany–I came to see a comparison between Werner’s story and the German people in general. At his school, and later, when he and his friend were assigned terrible tasks, he grew in comprehension. Brutality surrounded Werner throughout his story.

                I hope I have not gone on and on too much here! This is new experience for me, to comment on a book blog. I probably do not know the proper etiquette.

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              • In my experience most bloggers are delighted by comments, especially long and thoughtful ones 🙂

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  4. Hi Mij,
    Like Max says, we book bloggers, especially myself, are delighted by long thoughtful comments.
    Particularly in the scenes where Werner witnesses the extreme cruelty toward his friend and classmate, Doerr does depict the brutality of the Nazi mindset. That is definitely true.
    I was not too excited by the Von Rumpel story. It is hard to get excited by a wild jewel chase in the midst of all the misery that was occurring in France at the time. I felt that story was sort of tacked on to get the conventional best-seller readers.
    Werner is a young thoughtful German, and I’m sure there were many Germans who resented the Nazi brutality. After all, Germany borders France, and the people on the border probably interact with the people across the border a lot.
    The novel ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ (aka ‘Alone in Berlin’) by Hans Fallada is an excellent novel that shows that even the average Berliners didn’t have much use for the Nazis. My review of that novel is at: https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/two-novels-by-hans-fallada/

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    • Posted by Mij Woodward on September 10, 2014 at 12:29 AM

      Anoka, I agree about the Von Rumpel story, although my interest piqued when Marie could hear his boots creak up the stairs. And perhaps you are right about the purpose of the jewel story–to attract bestseller-readers. I thought of it as a unique storyline, a different angle–just one of the many stories that can be told about WWII, that Doerr was offering something never heard of before. I did not care what his motives were in doing this, and just went along for the ride. I presume the purpose of most authors is to hopefully reap some money from their creations, so if they are written to appeal to some bestseller-readers, I simply don’t care, as long as they appeal to me. I just enjoyed your reviews of Every Man Dies Alone. Very interesting, especially since it was published so close to the war. Max, will have to add The Counterfeiters to our Netflix queue. Looks really interesting. Other fairly recent films I have enjoyed, on WWII, uplifting–The Book Thief, Lore, In Darkness, The King’s Speech, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (though sad). Have also really enjoyed the BBC series Land Girls, as well as an older series called Island at War, about the Channel Islands. Great discussion, you guys. Enjoyed it immensely.

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      • Hi Mij,
        I just added ‘The Counterfeiters’ to my Netflix queue. Of the WW II films you’ve mentioned, the only one I’ve seen is ‘The King’s Speech’ which was quite good. My Favorite WW II movie is probably ‘The Downfall’, a German movie about Hitler’s last days. I should also mention that I read ‘Land Girls’ by Angela Huth which was spectacularly good, and I probably watched the TV series too.
        And you are right that if an author puts in a plot line to sell more books, that’s a good thing.

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        • Posted by Mij Woodward on September 11, 2014 at 7:55 PM

          Just went to add Counterfeiters and The Downfall to my Netflix queue. I was surprised to see that I had already rated Counterfeiters with 5 stars, which means I’ve already viewed it!! But it will be fun to re-watch it, as I cannot remember anything about it!

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