All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
One of the highlights of the year for me is always my family’s annual holiday to Normandy: we spend a restful week in a quiet area, reading and eating, returning to our favourite places year after year. One of those favourite places for us is Saint-Malo, just over the regional border in Brittany, a historical walled city which was nearly completely destroyed during the Second World War. So when my Mum passed on All the Light We Cannot See to me, a novel set in Saint-Malo during this period, I couldn’t think of a better time to start it than on the very day we had our annual visit to the city. Personal connection to the setting aside, this was a gripping, well-written novel that I am very glad I had recommended to me.
All the Light We Cannot See follows two characters, Marie-Loure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, who both end up in Saint-Malo during the Allied bombing. However, their journeys up to that point in time, revealed through flashback chapters, have been very different: Marie-Loure, blind from a young age, flees from Paris with her father shortly before the Nazi occupation of the city, hoping to find refuge with her great-uncle in Saint-Malo; meanwhile Werner, orphaned at a young age, is recruited into the Nazi Youth and subsequently into the army as a result of his skill in engineering radios, eventually being sent to Saint-Malo to track a radio signal being used by the French Resistance.
As Doerr weaves Marie-Loure and Werner’s lives together, there are two layers to the narrative. The surface is the thriller aspect of the novel, in which there is a hunt for a valuable crystal that was once housed in the Parisian museum where Marie-Loure’s father worked. Doerr builds the tension throughout the novel as the danger that Marie-Loure is in increases on every page, eventually climaxing in the scenes after the bombing when she is hiding within hearing distance from her pursuer. Adding to the suspense is the work of the French Resistance, as those around Marie-Loure find themselves constantly facing the threat of discovery.
Yet underneath the tension of the narrative is the striking emotional response of these two young people to the war: Doerr anchors the novel in engaging, well-written characters and is able to explore the emotional impact to those on both sides of the war through them. It is hard not to root for Marie-Loure as she navigates an ever-changing and dangerous world without being able to see; seeing the world through Werner’s eyes, meanwhile, brings home the fact that his life is totally out of his own control.
Overall, this was a novel I really enjoyed that kept me on the edge of my seat without ever losing the engagement I had with the characters. I was interested to learn more about the history of Saint-Malo, a place that I knew well but had never thought about from a historical point of view before; it definitely made me reconsider the days I have spent there in ignorance of the devastation that occurred all those decades ago. I know this novel has been doing the rounds, and it is one I would recommend particularly for anyone with an interest in historical fiction. Doerr’s writing is engaging, building tension well, and I would be interested in reading more of his work at some point.