All the Light We Cannot See is one of those novels that has been on my bookshelf, basically since it came out, and at this point feels like everyone but me has long since read it! We get quite number of points of view in this novel but it primarily follows two main points of view and jumps between the past and the present.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
Marie-Laure is one of our main characters, becoming blind at a young age she relearns the world without sight, with the help of her doting father. Longing for adventure, Marie-Laure gets more than she wanted when her and he father flea Nazi occupied Paris for Saint-Malo where they live with her whacky great uncle.
Werner is a young orphaned German boy who’s engineering intellect sees him quickly brought into the Hitler Youth and eventually conscripted to the war at a very young age of 16.
As typical with these novels Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives draw closer as they both find themselves in Saint-Malo, yet on different sides of the conflict.
Whilst this novel is set in World War 2, its focus is not really on the horrors of concentration camps, or the front lines, or many other elements that are somewhat a staple of this genre. Instead it focuses more on the personal experiences of these two, how they specifically grow up, and the effects the setting has on who they become.
“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?“
Marie-Laure learns how to live her life blind, relying on her other senses and still finding enjoyment and the ability too contribute to life despite her disability. She is hungry for knowledge, keen for adventure, and unwilling to let her loss of sight rob her from life itself. Meanwhile Werner learns both everything he can about engineering, science and more, but also about how cruel the world can be. As time wears on, so does it ware down Werners belief in good and humanity, although he has his sight, he is robbed of seeing much more. Whilst I really enjoyed Marie-Laure as a character and she was great to read, Werner’s character bounced around a bit for me, he seemed to not at all like being a Nazi, and not succumb fully to the essential brain washing of his peers, but neither did he really have the ability to fight and break free of his situation mentally of physically, which left his story falling a little flat to me. His suffering is a different kind to the typical victims of the war, instead a robbing of innocence, childhood and what his life may have become had he had control of it. Which I guess is the point but as cliche as it might have been I would have liked to have seen his character have a different evolution than what it did.
“How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?”
Where this novel really shines is the prose. The language is absolutely beautiful and creates this amazing atmosphere of landscapes and emotions. It draws you in and fully immerses you into the world right alongside Marie-Laure and Werner. We spend a lot of time contemplating the meaning of life and humanity, of good and evil, through rich language littered with symbolism and metaphors. I can see why this novel is so well acclaimed and can imagine it would have been a fantastic audio book as well.
“Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”
What I found holding this one back from a five star read for me was the plot. Being as long a novel as it is, the plot didn’t come together in a way that I thought was the best it could be. We spend a long time building towards what we know if coming, the collision of our characters in the present day, and after getting there it was a little of a let down. Some of the plot threads to me also seemed to add little to the overall story, mainly being present to help build a picture of the world or be important to the plot, but out of place otherwise. I think these could have benefited by either becoming a more integral part of the plot, or having less attention devoted to them. In the case of the stories tying together, I had predicted the way this would happen, and the danger of the moment came from a plot line that felt quite contrived.
“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
All in all though, a lovely novel that builds detailed world with lush prose and beautiful language despite the horrible circumstances it is set within. I can see how this novel has become so acclaimed and although it wasn’t a knock out of the park for me it was still a great read that left me feeling contemplative and humbled, staying with me for days after I finished.
I read this for my 52 Book Club Reading Challenge prompt “a book set in a Mediterranean country”. You can check out my progress here.