Originally posted by authornwolf at Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is filled with several themes and precise descriptions of Europe from the 1930s to the 1970s. One major theme presented in the title. The title inspires hope to shine light a beacon of light in darkness like God always overcomes Evil. Another major theme is that war only brings suffering to both sides, which is emphasized with graphic details of death and sadness. A third theme is that humans are connected to each other through their actions. A fourth theme explores how childhood affects adulthood.
This novel is primarily about Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, two children who grow up in pre-World War II Europe. LeBlanc is a French girl who becomes blind at six-years of age. Still, she has a happy childhood with her father in Paris. Werner, a child prodigy, lives with his sister Jutta in an impoverished German orphanage. The siblings keep each other company until Werner is sent to serve the German army. Despite stark differences in their upbringings, the worlds of LeBlanc and Werner repeatedly collide through radio frequencies. Despite the chaos of World War II, a love story unfolds, proving that nothing can extinguish the greatest treasure in life. Additionally, Doer proposes that even the vilest human beings will exhibit compassion. First, Werner protects a member of the French Resistance, despite is indoctrination of revealing opposing forces. Second, Frank Volkheimer, who served with Werner, delivered the personal effects of a fallen fellow soldiers to his survivors.
LeBlanc is the most perceptive character. Though unable to see military planes flying overhead or those around her fleeing their homes, she smells gasoline from those aircrafts and overhears hushed conversations about the war. Her other senses also guide her through streets, make her aware of human nature plus the changes around her. Aware of something terrible afoot, she asks direct questions about what is happening and feels dreadful about the future.
Werner senses that his role in the German army promotes evil but does nothing to stop the horror until his life is threatened. Yet, Werner constantly compromises himself to avoid working in the coal mines where his father died. His only hope for a different fate is uncovering enemies to then be annihilated by tracing their radio signals.
The other surviving characters are emotionally lonely in their struggles to overcome wartime trauma throughout adulthood. They relive behavioral patterns from childhood. Jutta becomes an algebra teacher who marries an accountant. Their son particularly likes playing with his train sets. Calculating numbers and mathematics were common themes for young Jutta, whose brother excelled in mathematics and science. Werner spent hours teaching himself physics and trigonometry or fixing radios. Light is present in multiple forms, the most powerful of which was invisible. For instance, radio signals allowed Werner to locate enemies, though he could not see the air waves. Through imagery, readers can vicariously feel the fear of being discovered; the pressure Werner imposes on himself to be valuable; the horror of anti-Semitism; the determination of LeBlanc to survive; and the anguish of war victims. Overall, the female characters are more resilient. Foremost, LeBlanc survives the German occupation of France. Plus, Madame Manec, with whom LeBlanc lives while in hiding, organizes a group to defy the German army.