All The Light We Cannot See is an epic story about two children growing up as the Second World War breaks. Marie Laure is in France, and Werner Pfennig is in Germany. The story flits between the two main characters, across time, at times giving additional viewpoints as the story requires. All The Light We Cannot See is an extraordinary tale of growing up in challenging times and circumstances. Marie Laure gradually loses her sight becoming totally blind, making her world shrink further under the careful guidance of her father (Marie Laure is motherless). Werner Pfennig is an orphan, living with his sister in an orphanage. He is a boy full of curiosity, scientifically astute, with a natural gift to fix anything. His boyhood delight is the stories he hears late at night across the airwaves of a radio he has fixed. In due course Werner’s gift is recognised by the Nazis, and his future is shaped. Marie Laure’s future, by contrast, is shaped when she flees Paris with her father, the keeper of the keys of a Paris Museum. He is entrusted with one of the museum’s treasures, the fabled Sea of Flames, a rare and accursed diamond. They flee to St Malo, to the home of his brother, a recluse in a strange house.
Doerr’s story is a brilliant one, part fable, part tragedy, part thriller – and of course a story of children growing up. It is utterly absorbing. Doerr’s structure, building the story backwards and forwards across time, in bite sized chapters worked. It was compelling reading, and in that old cliche, a complete ‘page turner’. Doerr has created characters that I cared deeply about – it mattered to me what happened to Marie Laure, her father, Werner Pfennig, Pfennig’s friend in Nazi school, and Marie Laure’s Uncle. All of this around the mystery of the Sea of Flames. All The Light We Cannot See is written from the point of view of the children, so there is a real sense of villains and heroes. I think this gave it an almost fairy tale quality at times – of course orphans are a key ingredient of a good fairy tale.
The tension builds until you realise that the worlds of the two children, now adolescent, will collide. Werner’s role in the Nazi was to track radio transmissions, which eventually takes him to St Malo. This perhaps is where the story is the most tense and most moving.
The brilliance of All The Light We Cannot See is in the story, the characters, and the way it is written. However, it is not without its flaws. I did not like the ending, where time rolls forward and we see Marie Laure as a grandmother. It was a little to sewn up for my liking, a little too somehow ‘happily ever after’, even though it was not quite that. Doerr’s writing at times was luxurious. His attention to detail is breathtaking, and I would re-read sentences for the pure enjoyment of them. He conjures places into the space in front of you, particularly those through the eyes (sorry) of a blind girl. At others, the writing is over-dramatised and clunky. At one point I had to check that Doerr’s nationality, as the current day Americanisms scattered into speech jarred, taking me right out of the story. There is no place for those in the context of a historical fiction in European children. Doerr is adjective heavy, but that did not trouble me too much. There is so much to forgive in his bringing such a glorious story. For all its flaws, I highly recommend this ‘damn fine yarn’.