All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

81TRTuHJSnLEveryone I talk to seems to be reading this book. All the Light You Cannot See is a page turner, but as a work of historical fiction, it also left me much more knowledgeable about the German occupation of France and the bombing of Saint Malo two months after D-Day. I love a good story but even more, I love a good story where I also learn a great deal of history. The story takes place primarily in Paris and Saint Malo, centering on Marie-Laure, a blind girl, and her father, an employee at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Together they flee Paris and end up with a great uncle in the walled city of Saint Malo. The second story focuses on two orphan kids, specifically, Werner, a German boy who aspires to a life beyond the mines where his father died. He and his sister grow up listening to French broadcasts of a children’s science show, and through this, he knew there was a world beyond the dust and death of the mines—a world of science and discovery. His knowledge of radios lands him a coveted spot in a Hitler Youth training academy which seems like the miracle he pined for. That is, until the realities of the training—and the war—become clear. At only fourteen, he is told, “You will strip away your weakness, your cowardice, your hesitation.  You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets–you will surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause.  You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone.  You will eat country and breathe nation” (137). Werner’s part of the story reminds me of current day ISIS where the disenfranchised and the dreamers can be easily recruited because they want so badly to belong to something great and powerful.

Doerr writes beautifully, and he infuses an impressive amount of detailed information about radios, diamonds (another sub story), birds, mollusks, locks, and guns. I have no idea if he knew all of this and decided to incorporate it into the story, or if he researched it all specifically for the story, but these details make for compelling characters and a fresh plot. The walled port city of Saint Malo is almost a character in itself as Doerr’s details make it come alive, especially in the scenes where it is literally dying, first under the German occupation and finally under the prolific American bombs.

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