All the Light we Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

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All the Light we Cannot See tells the story of two children, one French, one German, beginning in the years leading up to WW2: their lives and characters are very different.

Marie-Laure is blind.  She lives in Paris with her father, who has built a model of the neighbourhood to help her find her way about.  Werner Pfennig is an orphan living in the Ruhr valley.  He is intellectually curious and talented.  Soon he finds himself in an elite school for the children of the Third Reich – a Hitler youth.

Their stories alternate and intertwine.  At the onset of the war Marie-Laure escapes from Paris to St Malo with her father, and it is in this city that the denouement takes place.  Duerr begins the novel here, in the bombed out city, in August 1944 as the allied troops advance.  It’s a moment of crisis for Marie-Laure and Werner: both are trapped in the ruined buildings, and desperate to escape.  We return to them in this predicament throughout the novel.  Meanwhile Duerr fills in the background, tells each of their stories.

Duerr is a great writer with an amazing ability to find new and interesting metaphors and similes, to create archetypes of universal significance.  We are given a moving critique of Nazi Germany, and a realistic portrayal of a small part of the French resistance.  We see science as both a gift and a curse.  The people in this book are heroic in their flawed humanity.  The book teems with life and action and imagination.

For the last 30 or so pages my eyes were pretty tearful.  Maybe it is overdone, too sentimental in its portrayal of a blind child and a snowy haired, large eared German orphan.  There you have it – blind children, orphans!  Even so this is a book well worth reading, a book filled with compassion, humanity and maybe even hope.

Guardian Review

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