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All the Light We Cannot See is an award winning book by Anthony Doerr. Although I’m late to the party with this review (the book came out in 2017) but if you’re wanting to read the book before you check out the upcoming Netflix series, now’s a great time.
Table of Contents
When Will All the Light We Cannot See be on Netflix?
The Netflix series will be a four part show directed by 21 Laps Entertainment, best known for Stranger Things. There’s no release date yet, which means if you want to take in the story you’ll have to check out the book for now.
New for 2022: Still no release date, but we did find out that Mark Ruffalo (the Incredible Hulk) and Hugh Laurie (House, amongst other things) joined the cast. Aria Mia Loberti had already been cast to play Marie-Laure. Opposite her, they also recently cast Louis Hofmann to play Werner.
My ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ Book Review:
First of all, I’m actually surprised that the book is being turned into a limited run series. I was gifted this novel for Christmas of 2020, and it was sitting on my shelf barely started for months. But now that we’re already into October I’ve been trying to knock everything off my 2021 reading list before the year ends.
What is All the Light We Cannot See About?
Set during the second world war, the story follows the lives of two children: blind 12 year old French girl Marie-Laure who lives in Paris with her father, and 14 year old Werner, an orphan living in a German mining town.
Marie-Laure and her father are forced to flee Paris as war and occupation start, and with them take a possibly real (or fake) version of a magnificent rare jewel. They escape to her uncle’s house in Saint-Malo.
Werner learns to fix radios at a young age and enjoys listening to French programs with his sister, Jetta, in secret. This unique talent leads him to be recruited by the army so he can help track down members of the resistance.
Without revealing too much about the story, both characters must face challenges on their own, eventually leading their stories to intertwine.
Characters and Setting
One thing Anthony Doerr does remarkably well is characters and setting. He leaves nothing to the imagination in a way that allows the imagination to take over and bring you to the exact place the characters are at that moment. By using minimal setting locations (especially with Marie-Laure, who can’t travel far on her own due to blindness) you’re able to become familiar with the story’s locations and this breathes life into the world.
The characters, whom are primarily teenagers, are written as children would think and behave. There was nothing overly juvenile about them, and yet their innocence remains. Despite this, the story is not a coming of age or young adult fiction – it’s merely a story that involves children, and how their lives would be forever changed by war.
Although the story follows a variety of characters in a 3rd person fixed point of view (it’s always clear when you shift), you sometimes don’t feel like the story is about the characters at all. Sure, you see their motivations and perspective, but it’s really about what’s happening around them.
For example, when you follow the children and see realities of the war from their perspective, the war is as much of a focus in the story as they are.
Locations, particularly the house in Saint-Malo, almost become supporting characters on their own.
One downside to the shifting perspective in storytelling that was used throughout the novel, though, is the seemingly randomness of whose perspective we are privy to. For example, we start the book through the eyes of the children, but later on more characters are added – but only for a few chapters.
This is something that needs to be commented on because this book is unique in the way the story is told. It not only shifts between perspectives, this point of views change often. Chapters are very short, some just a page or two, and never more than a few pages.
It leads to a book that’s easy to pick up and put down, and one that keeps things interesting while different levels of “action” are happening to separate characters at different times.
The book is also divided into sections that are dated. These also vary in length, and are primarily used to show the progression of time. However, one other thing happens: we are given glimpses into the future.
On occasion, we jump ahead to the end of the story and follow the characters briefly before returning to where we left off. This is confusing at times, especially if you fail to pay attention to the dates, but overall adds an extra “I can’t wait to see how they get to that moment” aspect as you read on.
The book can be slow, but only when necessary. The pacing is exactly as it needs to be when appropriate. While it might not be an epic page turner, I still found myself wanting to see what happened next so much so that after picking up the book for a second time I finished it in less than two days.
This is the only area of the book where I was somewhat disappointed. Like all good stories, everything comes together in the end, and I did find this satisfying overall. It was, however, abrupt and rushed – in my opinion. At least in terms of character development.
Which is ironic because the events that take place during the story’s ending are actually quite slow. I wouldn’t call it tedious; it creates tension. However, I feel like there was more room to flesh out the characters’ relationships with one another before and during the climax.
We are at least treated with an epilogue, and one that does satisfy in many ways. A few loose ends are tied up and characters are visited years later – something that I appreciate in a story where we become attached to the survival and well-being of the cast.
There is one thing, though, that remains unresolved. If you’ve read the book you’ll know which I’m referring to, and if you intend to read the story it will become apparent. Based on the wording used, it seems to have been by design. But on a personal level it’s something I wanted concluded and was not.
Overall, All the Light We Cannot See is beautifully written and immersive. Doerr doesn’t leave any important details out, and the characters feel very much alive. Food, using the washroom, and sleep are all important – just as they are to any living creature. While it might seem mundane, these small details are what make the story shine so brightly in a sea of WW2 novels.
This was my first time reading a story from the perspective of a blind person, and I believe Doerr did her justice. Marie-Laure is perfectly capable of caring for herself even in the most dire of circumstances, and she does so in her own unique way.
Her small quirks: counting steps, memorizing streets, and an acute sense of hearing are all detailed in such a way that you never forget Marie-Laure can’t see. This might be a barrier for Marie but never a negative for the reader, and adds yet another sense of realism to the story and characters.
Despite my criticisms of the ending the overall story is remarkable. While this book is fiction, it comes from truth; a war where so many atrocities were seen by so many people. A war where children held guns, French girls were not allowed to visit the beach, and people went missing never to be seen again.
It becomes a duty, in this case, for an author to not just describe events that could have taken place during those times, but also to keep everything historically accurate. The research that has gone into this book (which apparently took 10 years to write) is evident at every turn.
Doerr brings this world to life through the eyes of a young boy and the years and hands of a young girl with a realistic world that many fiction authors fail to construct.
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All the Light We Cannot See Age Level
This book is adult fiction, which means it’s written for an adult audience. That being said, the characters are teens and young adults – that doesn’t make it YA, but it does mean that they are more approachable to a younger audience.
There are some depictions of adult themes including death and rape. I would say that the language is PG-13 and that most kids 14 and up would be able to read it based both on the content and the difficultly.
Personally, as a parent, I would be comfortable with my 12 and 14 year old kids reading this book. I’m not sure that they’d be interested, though – and herein lies the biggest reason it’s more of an adult book.
Where to Buy All the Light We Cannot See
What to Read Next: Books Similar to All the Light We Cannot See
If you liked All the Light We Cannot See and aren’t sure what to read next, here’s some ideas from my personal bookshelf:
Cloud Cuckoo Land
Where the Crawdads Sing
If you like following stories of children and young adults navigating unique (historically accurate) challenges, you’ll love this book. Delia Owens is a brilliant writer – I was shocked at how much the story drew me in and it quickly became one of my favourites! The movie is also coming out soon.
The Alice Network
Set post World War 2, this book follows the story of two women. They connect when the younger one embarks on a quest to find her cousin who went missing in France during the war, and the other, a retired spy, agrees to help find her. Don’t let the romantic-looking cover of this Kate Quinn novel fool you, it’s jam packed with interesting history of the real life female spy networks that are woven into this historical fiction story.
The Book Thief
Another WW2 book, this one is a bit more YA but still a great story of someone young overcoming extreme obstacles. Written by Markus Zusak, it’s another case of historical fiction that’s heavy on the real world history. If you haven’t already this one you definitely need to check it out!
The Glass Castle
If what drew you to All the Light We Cannot see was the hardship and grit then this book is going to be another treasured page turner. It’s a true story memoir of Jeannette Walls’ life growing up with an on again, off again, alcoholic father and negligent mother that led to Jeannette and her two siblings raising themselves.