‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by author Anthony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade in American literature, and it’s been on the international bestseller list ever since. Red Szell, Read On Air presenter and author, reviews the hit book
I tend to give books with fiction or blind characters a miss, particularly if the author is sighted. When I first heard that ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ featured a young blind French girl stranded in war-torn France, I thought, here we go again. However, I was hooked from beginning to end. Doerr is a masterful storyteller and, although the book meanders a bit in the middle section, it remained a page-turner.
Set in France and Germany before and during the Second World War, the story follows the fates of Marie- Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, an orphan from a mining community in Germany.
Marie-Laure lives with her beloved and doting Papa, who is a locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History. The museum houses a supposedly cursed diamond and when the Nazis invade Paris, the diamond is entrusted to Marie-Laure’s father. Together, they flee to the Normandy town of Saint-Malo where her father builds Marie-Laure a model of the surrounding area so that she can find her way around.
Meanwhile, Werner, living in dire poverty, discovers an old radio that he painstakingly repairs. Not only does the radio offer Werner a window on the world beyond his poverty, it provides him with a way out. His talent for repairing radios is spotted and he is sent to an elite but brutal military academy to be trained to work on radio tracking devices to help the German war effort.
The imminent threat of death, the youth and vulnerability of Marie- Laure and Werner’s gentle nature compel the reader to turn the pages to find out what fate awaits them. The book is extremely well researched and full of insight. The characters are beautifully drawn and the dialogue drives the story forward, often sounding like snatches of radio broadcasts that Werner might have tuned into.
I found the reaction to six-year-old Marie-Laure’s sight loss particularly resonant. Although she often has to rely on others for help, she’s also determined, independent-minded and alive to her surroundings.
The only thing that spoilt it for me was the writing style. Although I got used to the dramatic present tense and the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, the modern Americanisms that litter the story stood at odds with a book set in wartime Europe.
‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is one of the best books I’ve read this year. At 17 hours long, it is perfect for a long journey or a holiday read. It is available as a Talking Book, read by Julie Teal, pictured below.