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All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – A perspective

Updated on May 27, 2016

St. Malo during WWII


All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – A perspective

Whether All the light we cannot see deserved to win the Pulitzer for fiction, I do not know. It has all the literary technicalities but the plot is not satisfactory; Anthony Doerr takes care of describing the scenes and settings but he has forgotten to tell the story. The reader keeps waiting and waiting but nothing happens; when the hero and the heroine meet it feels like despite being late now the story will take off, but nothing happens. A spark lights up for a second, but it douses instantly.

The novel is more like a portrait than a scene. It tells the lives of few characters amidst the second world war and focuses on their lives rather than the war. The two main characters are Werner pfenning and Marie Laure Le Blanc; former is an orphan and the latter is blind. Werner and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage. A lady Frau Elena takes care of it. Both Werner and Jutta are very fond of frau Elena and frau Elena dotes on them. The orphanage is in Germany. Marie Laure is blind. She is the daughter of the locksmith in a museum in France. In that museum is kept a priceless diamond named sea of flames. The diamond is so precious it is kept inside a safe inside a safe inside a safe and so on such that one can reach it only after opening fourteen or fifteen safes. Marie’s father has the keys.


In the beginning the reader expects to happen a lot, even it might turn out to be a fantasy. There is a legend associated with the diamond: Anyone who owns it will live for ever but his close ones will all die.

Two stories run side by side, one of Werner and one of Marie; one in Germany and the other in France. The chapters are placed in a manner such that most of the times one chapter tells the story of Werner and the next the story of Marie. The reader expects that the stories will converge soon but they converge in the end and even after that nothing interesting happens.

The novel may be a tad disappointing but it certainly is written by a master writer who is not a good storyteller, or may be he just wants to emphasize the feelings and pains one passes through during and after a war like situation. The writing is meticulously descriptive. The author catches even the most subtle feelings of the characters and describes it in a descriptive and touching way. Especially he has stupendously portrayed the thoughts and feelings of the blind marie who is not only blind but also has no mother. Her father is the light of her life. When the story starts she is about six, her father takes her to the museum where she plays and learns interesting things from the museum’s in charge. Her father, a lock-smith, has created a wooden model of the neighborhood so that she will navigate the places near her house on her own.

Werner is passionate about science and technology. He prepares electric instruments, he is good with numbers, and he can repair damaged radios and other instruments. He has become so famous that a Nazi officer sends his men to fetch him to get repaired her wife’s radio.

Later Werner joins a Nazi school. He has been selected because of his brilliance. Jutta feel something wrong with those Nazi men flaunting their swastika. She requests Werner not to join the school, but Werner sees great potential in joining that school where he can study science and technology. He had no idea that he would be sent to the army as an electrician. france is under siege of the Nazis. Monsieur Le Blanc and Laure Marie leave paris and head to a little beautiful town named saint malo. There lives the uncle of Monsieur Le Blanc. Le Blanc had taken with him the sea of flames so that no nazi could find it. In fact a Nazi officer is sent to get that diamond of immeasurable value.

Whole france becomes a battlefield. Werner is sent to france as a technician. He gets trapped in a partially crumbled house with his colleagues. A world war is going on but the author sticks to the feelings of the hero and heroine. Cacophony of bombs exploding, airplanes whooshing, tanks rambling, Marie and Werner can hear them and Doerr describes it meticulously. Marie-Laure’s father has been captured by the Nazis, and Marie is alone with her great uncle and aunt. Marie has a transmitter from which she broadcasts Jules Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea. Werner has a transceiver from which he listens to the story.

There was so much potential of turning it into a great plot of twists and turns, the legend associated with the sea of planes, but the author chooses to keep it simple. Nothing special happens, although Marie Laure and Werner meet once, in a chapter of a single page.

The story could have been made a little interesting without losing its essence. But the author deliberately keeps it simple. He does not want to entertain, he just wants to make people aware of what it takes to live amidst a war. How does a whole city get destroyed, how gruesomely it separates the loved ones. And what for? The mission is like the legend associated with the sea of flames.

The book remained number one in the New York times best-seller list for a long time. Even Anthony Doerr himself later acknowledged that he had not even dreamt of this book becoming a commercial hit. The book has won many awards, including the 2015 Pulitzer for fiction. The other eminent awards it won are The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction. It was shortlisted for the National Book award.

It seldom happens that a commercial hit gets positive criticism and win prestigious literary awards, and All the light we cannot see is one of them.

Anthony Doerr visited Saint Malo before writing this book to do research. How the mornings and afternoons and evenings feel, look, and smell there.

It would be a perfect novel if a longer relationship between the hero and the heroine developed; if there had been a little more action involving Werner pfenning. If that german officer, Von Rumpel, had not collapsed like a sack while hunting the sea of flames.

This novel is great, but it could have been a little greater, that is the reason behind my disappointment. I am going to end this article with one of my favorite quotes from the novel.

““Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”


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