Review of All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

The history and settings of this book alone makes it a worthwhile read. The author has a gift for bringing places to life and rendering this time period authentic in both beauty and ugliness. I often dislike historical fiction, finding the writing often stilted and awkward, but this novel combines the history and setting flawlessly into the story line.

This book alternates between two lives of the blind French Marie-Laure and the German Werner Pfennig (although the occasional extra character will get a chapter here and there). The time period of the story starts a few years before WWII and goes through the end of the war, with a few chapters looking even farther into the future (this is not a spoiler as the chapter titles have dates in them.)

I love the language and the detail. Many historical fiction books put in researched detail, but it usually feels forced and obvious. This book doesn’t feel like history at all, yet so much history is in here. The settings, whether it’s a house or a camp or a little tiny room under the rampart, feel immediate and sharp.

The characters are strong, complex, and feel mostly authentic. There are some periods where the characters’ actions and motivations seem a bit stretched, but the novel never gives them easy choices or easy consequences.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is on page 63: “Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean towards its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.”

The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was the extremely frequent flipping between characters. During every one to three minutes of reading, the book flips characters and scenes. I quite like how the story followed these two very different people, but the changes happened much too fast and much too often. I never had a chance to settle into the scenes. It made it hard to read for long periods of time, and it separated me emotionally from the book, which may or may not have been intentional. This remains a worthwhile book in spite of this problem, but it’s worth a warning to anyone picking it up.

For book groups, this book is average in discussion potential. While I struggled finding good, complex questions, I ended up with enough to give this a recommended status.

Click here for my discussion questions on this book.

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