Sonderbooks Book Review of

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

read by Zach Appelman

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All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

read by Zach Appelman

Reviewed May 27, 2015.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2014. 13 compact discs.
Starred Review
2015 Alex Award Winner
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

All the Light We Cannot See is a rich, gently moving novel about some extraordinary people in wartime.

The book begins at the end of World War II, with the bombardment of Saint-Malo. The author spotlights two people caught in the siege, and later a third who is looking for something there. The scenes in the spotlight move slowly, inexorably through the book – coming just often enough to keep us fascinated.

In between, we get the history of these people through the war years. Marie-Laure is blind. She lived in Paris with her Papa, and went with him to his work at the Museum of Natural History. He carved a complete model of their neighborhood in Paris which Marie-Laure could navigate with her fingers, and then he taught her to navigate the actual streets.

When Paris falls to the Nazis, they flee to Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s crazy great-uncle Etienne lives. Her Papa is carrying something for the museum. Is it a fake, or is it the Sea of Flames, an amazing diamond with a curse on it? The curse promises eternal life to its keeper – at the cost of disasters happening to all the ones they love. Is this why disasters are striking their family?

Another main character is a young orphan named Werner. He is fascinated with radios and soon gets the attention of the authorities with his ability to repair radio equipment. This attention gets him enrolled in the Hitler Youth and then in the army before his time.

Uncle Etienne has a radio transmitter, and Werner ends up in a unit looking for illegal transmitters.

Meanwhile, an expert on gems is looking for the Sea of Flames. He is patient, and follows one lead after another, during all the war years.

This audiobook was a wonderful choice. The narrator captured the tone of the book perfectly. The detailed descriptions had me mesmerized. I felt like I knew what it was like to be a blind girl in World War II France and a brilliant orphan drawn into the Hitler Youth.

The story is mostly wonderful and transcends wartime – but it did have some horrible moments, because this was wartime. I didn’t find the ending satisfying. Perhaps I read too many young adult books – I wanted things tied up a little more neatly than they were and hated at least one part of the ending.

I also wasn’t entirely sure what happened with one aspect. I wondered if I’d missed something because of listening rather than reading. But when a character speculates about what might have happened, I figured the reader was supposed to speculate, too. I’m not sure I like it that way.

So I’m not sure I completely liked where the journey took me – but I definitely enjoyed the journey. Marie-Laure and her Papa and Uncle Etienne and Werner and his sister Jutta are characters who will live on in my heart.