“When I lost my sight… people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
All The Light We Cannot See is a carefully constructed novel that takes place amid the brewing conflict of WW2. It is a dual perspective novel following the characters of Marie- Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, an orphaned German boy who comes to receive the tutelage of the Nazis. This use of perspective allows for the focus to be placed upon the impact of war on ordinary lives as opposed to focusing upon the horrors of the actual conflict of war. However, despite this promising premise and despite the carefully constructed nature of the novel, I can’t help but feel incredibly conflicted about this one. There was nothing inherently bad about this novel, but it also failed to be particularly engaging and despite having some good qualities, unfortunately it just wasn’t for me.
The characters of this novel were okay, and I enjoyed reading about Marie- Laure’s journey regarding her blindness and her relationship with her father. Both Marie and Werner’s characters were portrayed by the author with sensitivity, but unfortunately I felt that both lacked the emotional and moral complexity needed to make me invested. I found it difficult to connect to these characters because there was no real means of truly understanding them due to their lack of depth. The writing style, although absolutely beautiful, partially served to make the characters feel more distant, with the structural time changes only emphasizing this. In consequence, I didn’t really care much for the eventual meeting of the two characters, which was a slight issue for me in itself.
The aforementioned meeting of the two central characters of this story felt strange to me, and I feel this is largely down to the expectations created by the marketing of this novel as one where their meeting is a large plot event. Instead I felt that their meeting at the end of the novel was anti- climactic, and though I appreciate that perhaps this was supposed to present a wider message about life not always being satisfactory, it was something that didn’t work for me personally. Instead of making an emotional impact on me, the fleeting interaction between the two left a sense that the story had merely fizzled out.
One of the biggest issues for me personally however, was the plot. Unfortunately I felt that it never really gained momentum which made for a story that was quite hard for me to get through. The slow pace of this plot was perhaps due to the structure, with the time changing alternate perspectives becoming confusing and tedious at times, not really adding much purpose to the story. The lack of plot could also be attributed to Doerr’s reliance on common knowledge of the events of the war, alongside his focus on characters as opposed to the action, which is something that I can appreciate despite it not really working for me! The realism of this novel could also explain the lack of plot and slow pace, and I appreciate that this is an aspect of the novel that many loved, but unfortunately this was just not an opinion that I shared.
That said, this is a beautifully written novel. It effectively expresses brutal messages and symbols through this lyrical prose and beautiful imagery. And though in my personal opinion this book didn’t work for me I can appreciate Doerr’s skill for writing all the same.
Overall, my issues with this novel are definitely subjective, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from picking it up! This book is clearly one that is likable and works for many, and I am just disappointed that it wasn’t one that worked for me! I would love to know how others feel about this, and I’m curious as to whether others feel the same as I did.