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Light Found in Darkness of Wartime

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By Janet Maslin

  • April 28, 2014

Boy meets girl in Anthony Doerr ’s hauntingly beautiful new book, but the circumstances are as elegantly circuitous as they can be. The heroine of “All the Light We Cannot See” is blind, but anyone familiar with Mr. Doerr’s work, which includes the short-story collections “The Shell Collector” and “Memory Wall,” will know that its title has many more meanings than that.

The heroine is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose loving father, a talented locksmith, goes to extraordinary lengths to help her compensate for the loss of her eyesight. Professionally, Marie-Laure’s father oversees all the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Privately, after his daughter is blinded by cataracts in 1934 at the age of 6, he devises tiny, intricate models of the places she must go, so that she learns to navigate by touch and then by memory.

Mr. Doerr’s acutely sensory style captures the extreme perceptiveness Marie-Laure has developed by the time World War II begins. Much of the story unfolds during the war, although it jumps back and forth. The book opens in August 1944, two months after D-Day, with the sound of things falling from the sky and rattling against windows. Marie-Laure knows these are leaflets. She can smell the fresh ink.

She is in the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo, a terrifically picturesque and apt setting for the most dramatic part of Mr. Doerr’s story. Saint-Malo is occupied by German forces and under siege by the Allied bombers that destroyed much of it before the war was over. And five streets away from the house to which Marie-Laure and her father have fled, a young German soldier named Werner Pfennig is trapped in the ruins of a grand hotel. Long before Werner and Marie-Laure meet, Mr. Doerr has created a skein of ties between them.

Marie-Laure grows up beloved and fortunate; Werner’s life is more grim. He is close to his sister, Jutta, but both are consigned to an orphanage after their father is crushed in a coal mine. For Werner, there truly seems to be no future: The German government decrees that when boys from his region reach their midteens, they must go to work in the mines. But Werner is also a prodigy. Just as Marie-Laure’s father has a genius for creating locks and models, Werner has a way with electrical circuits. He builds a shortwave radio that holds the key to his future.

Word of Werner’s extraordinary talent gets around. One day in 1939, a German officer who smells of cake asks Werner to accompany him to the household of a rich, powerful couple whose big, expensive Philco radio is on the fritz. Fixing it not only gets him all the cake he can eat (a treat beyond imagining for a boy of his background), but it also brings him candidacy for an elite Nazi school where the emphasis is on extreme military training. Werner isn’t surprised to pass the entrance exams easily. He’s more nonplused to find his head measured with calipers and his hair whiter than any of the 60-odd shades of blond on the examiners’ charts. It goes without saying that his eyes are also rated for their shade of blue.

Werner’s experience at the school is only one of the many trials through which Mr. Doerr puts his characters in this surprisingly fresh and enveloping book. What’s unexpected about its impact is that the novel does not regard Europeans’ wartime experience in a new way. Instead, Mr. Doerr’s nuanced approach concentrates on the choices his characters make and on the souls that have been lost, both living and dead.

The light in its title is, among other things, a topic that Werner hears discussed on a late-1930s radio broadcast about the brain’s power to create light in darkness. It’s an idea that reverberates ever more strongly as the book progresses. That the professor speaking on the radio turns out to be Marie-Laure’s grandfather just adds to the elements of felicity and coincidence that enrich this narrative. And the way Werner’s school so brutally tests his decency threatens to snuff out any of the light that made him such a special boy. Even allowing for the kill-or-be-killed values beaten into cadets at the place, Werner lets himself be seduced by the power newly bestowed upon him. He does nothing to stop the system that elevates him from destroying his best friend.

Self-protection is another of the many motifs running through this book. Marie-Laure is fascinated by snails, and takes the nickname the Whelk when Saint-Malo begins its small but creative efforts at Resistance; she is not timid, but she admires a snail’s ability to keep seabirds from smashing its shell. The book also falls under the spell of a huge blue diamond that is thought to cause suffering and is the subject of a frantic search on Hitler’s behalf. (“I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it,” says Marie-Laure, even though Papa has been in charge of protecting it in the museum.)

And then there are the lies. They come in all sizes and shapes here, from the falsely sunny letters written by those in grave danger (“I am incredibly safe, as safe as safe can be”) to the school propaganda that Werner is force- fed. As the words of his teachers fight the power of his memories, an inner voice tells him, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

A small thank you to Mr. Doerr for deliberately giving this intricate book an extremely readable format, with very short chapters, many about a page and a half long. As he told the Powell’s Books blog in a recent interview : “This was a gesture of friendliness, maybe. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘I know this is going to be more lyrical than maybe 70 percent of American readers want to see, but here’s a bunch of white space for you to recover from that lyricism.’ ”


By Anthony Doerr

531 pages. Scribner. $27.

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by Anthony Doerr ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2014

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014


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by Mark Z. Danielewski ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 6, 2000

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest ) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000


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by Mark Z. Danielewski


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by Sally Rooney ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 16, 2019

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends , in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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by Sally Rooney


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Anthony Doerr’s Optimism Engine

By James Wood

bird and clouds over book

A curious coincidence, of the kind favored by certain novelists, occurred in 2014 and 2015, when both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction were awarded in consecutive years to Donna Tartt, for “ The Goldfinch ,” and Anthony Doerr, for “ All the Light We Cannot See .” These novels, enormous best-sellers, are essentially children’s tales for grownups, and feature teen-age protagonists. In both books, the teen-ager possesses a rare object that has been removed from a great museum; the subsequent adventures of the object are inextricable from the adventures of the protagonist. In “ The Goldfinch ,” the object is an exquisite seventeenth-century painting, which thirteen-year-old Theo Decker has stolen from the Metropolitan Museum. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” Marie-Laure LeBlanc, sixteen years old and blind, ends up as the surviving guardian of a hundred-and-thirty-three-carat diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which once sat in a vault in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. As the Nazis closed in on the city, Marie-Laure and her father, who worked at the museum, fled with the gem to Saint-Malo.

The two novels end with loudly redemptive messages. On the final page of Tartt’s book, Theo informs us, “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time.” Toward the end of Doerr’s novel, a character reflects that to behold young Marie-Laure, who has survived the Second World War, albeit orphaned, “is to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts.” Years later, in 2014, a now elderly Marie-Laure sits in the Jardin des Plantes, and feels that the air is “a library and the record of every life lived.” At each moment, she laments, someone who once remembered the war is dying. But there is hope: “We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”

For both writers, I think, the real treasure to be safeguarded is not a particular painting or jewel but story itself: Tartt’s novel shares its very title with the painting in question, and more important to Marie-Laure than the gem are Jules Verne’s adventure stories, which she carries with her throughout the novel; in a stirringly implausible episode, a German soldier is kept alive by listening to her radio broadcast of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” In both books, “goodness” is really just the presumed great good of story. We “sing” across the generations, and this song is first of all the novel we hold in our hands, and more generally storytelling itself. This is what lasts, or so these writers hope: history as an enormous optimistic library.

What was implicit in “All the Light We Cannot See” is blaringly overt in Doerr’s new novel, “ Cloud Cuckoo Land ” (Scribner). Scattered across six hundred and twenty or so pages are five stories, set in very different places and periods. In the nearish future, Konstance, a teen-age girl (here’s our hero-guardian, once again), is flying in a spaceship with eighty-five other people, toward a planet that may sustain human life, after its collapse on earth. (Reaching its destination will take almost six hundred years.) In mid-fifteenth-century Constantinople, Anna, a Greek Christian, awaits the assault that has long been threatened by Muslim forces. A few hundred miles away, Omeir, a gentle country boy, finds himself caught up in the Sultan’s army and its march toward Constantinople, and he eventually encounters Anna. In contemporary Lakeport, Idaho, a sweet-natured octogenarian named Zeno Ninis is minding a group of schoolchildren, who are rehearsing a play in the local library, while, outside the building, a troubled ecoterrorist named Seymour sits in his car, a bomb in his lap, about to make his great explosive statement.

These characters are explicitly connected by a fable (or fragments of a fable) that Doerr has invented, and that he attributes to an actual Greek writer, Antonius Diogenes, thought to have flourished in the second century C.E. Titled “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” the Doerr-Diogenes fabrication tells the tale of Aethon, a shepherd who tries to travel to “a utopian city in the sky,” a place in the clouds “where all needs are met and no one suffers.” After assorted escapades of a classical nature—the hero is turned into a donkey and a crow—Aethon returns to earth, grateful for “the green beauty of the broken world,” or, as Doerr capitalizes for the slow-witted, “ WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE IS BETTER THAN WHAT YOU SO DESPERATELY SEEK. ”

Each of the novel’s five principal characters finds his or her way to this invented Greek text. Anna stumbles across a frail, goatskin codex of the tale in a ruined library in Constantinople. Omeir and Anna eventually fall in love and have children, and together they guard and tend the magical manuscript. Zeno spends his later years translating the Greek fable—indeed, it’s his dramatic version of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” that the schoolchildren are rehearsing in the Idaho library. Konstance’s father, one of a small number of people on the spaceship old enough to remember life on earth (most have been born on board), used to tell embellished adaptations of the Greek story to his daughter at bedtime. Near the end of Doerr’s novel, Diogenes’ fragments reach even Seymour, now in the Idaho State Correctional Institution, where he is doing time for the deadly incident at the library: Seymour gets interested in Zeno’s translation, and asks one of his victims, the town’s former librarian, to send it to him. As he reads, the potent text emits its healing gas. “By age seventeen he’d convinced himself that every human he saw was a parasite, captive to the dictates of consumption,” we’re told. “But as he reconstructs Zeno’s translation, he realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is to be human.”

What on earth—or even on Cloud Cuckoo Land—is this? It’s less a novel than a big therapeutic contraption, moving with sincere deliberation toward millions of eager readers. The author might reply, with some justice, that a fable is a therapeutic contraption, and so is plenty of Dickens. Doerr’s new novel, though, is more of a contraption, and more earnestly therapeutic, than any adult fiction I can recall reading. The obsessive connectivity resembles a kind of novelistic online search, each new link unfolding inescapably from its predecessor, as our author keeps pressing Return. The title shared by the Greek text and the novel comes, an epigraph reminds us, from Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds.” Yet these characters are also bound to one another by larger ropes of classical allusion and cross-reference. Anna and Zeno both excitedly discover the Odyssey before they encounter the Diogenes text; Seymour, who appears to be somewhat autistic, develops a relationship with an owl, which he nicknames Trustyfriend (a borrowing from “The Birds”); when Konstance’s father was back on earth, he used to live in Australia, on a farm he called Scheria (a mythical island in the Odyssey); the spaceship is named the Argos (the name of Odysseus’ dog, and also suggestive of Jason’s ship, the Argo).

These characters are, necessarily, held together not only by “Cloud Cuckoo Land” the fable but by “Cloud Cuckoo Land” the novel. Having laid out his flagrantly disparate cast, Doerr must insist on that cast’s almost freakish genealogical coherence. This formal insistence becomes the novel’s raison d’être. We have no idea how these people or periods relate to one another, or how they rationally could. But storytelling, redefined as esoteric manipulation, will reveal the code; the novelist is the magus, the secret historian. Although the book is largely set in a recognizable actual world, largely obeys the laws of physics, and features human beings, storytelling, stripped of organic necessity, aerates itself into fantasy.

Novels that, like “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” follow the “ Cloud Atlas ” suite form provide an opportunity for authorial bravado. (David Mitchell has much to answer for.) Doerr’s new book and its predecessor open with narrative propositions. The reader is, in effect, presented with a vast map, pegged with tiny characters who begin very far apart. Slowly, these dots will get bigger and move toward one another. In “All the Light We Cannot See,” for instance, we open in Saint-Malo, with sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure. Two other characters—a tenderhearted German radio engineer and a Nazi gem hunter—are converging on Marie-Laure, and it will take the course of the book for them to do so.

Doerr likes to start in medias res, and then to go back to the origins of his stories and work forward again (or forward and backward and forward again, in alternation). He dangles that first picture, the confusing snapshot from the thick of things, as the prize awaiting the properly plot-hungry, plot-patient reader. So that novel begins in 1944, and promptly takes us back to Marie-Laure at the age of six, in Paris, in order to demonstrate how she and her father ended up in Saint-Malo with a diamond bigger than the Ritz. At the opening of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” we’re presented with the incomprehensible tableau of fourteen-year-old Konstance hurtling through space in the Argos. She has recently discovered the connection between her father and Antonius Diogenes’ tale of Aethon. But the scene quickly gives way to the snatched preludes of two other stories: Zeno at the Idaho library with the children, Seymour in a parked car with his bomb. These stories, too, quickly reverse—we see Zeno at seven, in 1941, and Seymour at three, in 2005—in order to go forward once again more slowly. When we next encounter Konstance, a hundred or so pages after her first appearance, she is four years old. In this way, the reader is always playing Doerr’s game of catch-up, eager to reach a finale that has already functioned as prelude.

As a stylist, Doerr has several warring modes. One of them comes from what could be called the Richard Powers school of emergency realism. Omeir isn’t merely afraid; “tendrils of panic clutch his windpipe.” Anna isn’t merely very thirsty; “thirst twists through her.” When Seymour thinks, “questions chase one another around the carousel of his mind.” But Doerr’s habitual register is less obtrusive. He often writes very well, and is excellent at the pop-up scenic evocations required by big novels that move around a lot. Although the arcs of his stories may tend toward a kind of sentimental pedagogy, his sentences, in the main, scrupulously avoid it. He knows how to animate a picture; he knows which details to choose. Here is Zeno as a young infantryman, fighting in the Korean War. The supply truck he’s riding in has been ambushed by enemy soldiers:

A middle-aged Chinese soldier with small beige teeth drags him out of the passenger’s door and into the snow. In another breath there are twenty men around him. . . . Some carry Russian burp guns; some have rifles that look four decades old; some wear only rice bags for shoes. Most are tearing open C rations they’ve taken out of the back of the Dodge. One holds a can printed PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE while another tries to saw it open with a bayonet; another stuffs his mouth with crackers; a fourth bites into a head of cabbage as though it were a giant apple.

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Zeno is captured, and put in a P.O.W. camp. Doerr deftly provides the equivalent of a cinematic establishing shot: “In winter stalagmites of frozen urine reach up and out of the latrines. The river freezes, the Chinese heat fewer bunkhouses, and the Americans and Brits are merged.” We’re up and running.

Yet his prose is regularly on the verge of formula, and too often capitulates to baser needs. “All the Light We Cannot See” recycles a goodly amount of Nazi tropes: impeccably dressed officers brush invisible specks of dust from their uniforms, or pull off their leather gloves one finger at a time. A boy is “thin as a blade of grass, skin as pale as cream.” In both novels, when Doerr wants to gesture at immensity, he . . . gestures. The telltale formulation involves the word “thousand.” From his previous novel: “At the lowest tides, the barnacled ribs of a thousand shipwrecks stick out above the sea.” And: “A thousand frozen stars preside over the quad.” And: “A thousand eyes peer out.” And: “A shell screams over the house. He thinks: I only want to sit here with her for a thousand hours.” He’s at it again in the new book. Anna “practices her letter on the thousand blank pages of her mind.” Zeno, as a little boy, is afraid: “Only now does fear fill his body, a thousand snakes slithering beneath his skin.” Konstance, too, is on edge: “From the shadows crawl a thousand demons.”

It’s a minor tic, appealing even in its unconsciousness. But this double movement, simultaneously toward the enlargement of intensity and the routine of formula, tells us something about the strange terrain of Doerr’s novels, which leave so little for the mean, for the middle. Proficient prose supports an extravagance of storytelling; excellent craftsmanship holds together a flashing edifice; tight plotting underwrites earnestly immense themes. Every so often, a more subtle observer emerges amid these gapped extremities, a writer interested merely in honoring the world about him, a stylist capable of something as beautiful as “the quick, drastic strikes of a bow dashing across the strings of a violin,” or this taut description of an Idaho winter: “Icicles fang the eaves.”

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” has little time for such mimetic modesties and accidental beauties. Far more even than its predecessor, it is fraught with preachment. This novel of performative storytelling that is also a novel about storytelling is dedicated to “the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.” Two anxieties, reinforcing each other, are at play: the end of the book, and nothing less than the end of the world. Which is to say, the book is under threat both by the erosion of cultural memory and by the climate crisis. Doerr’s invention of the fable of Aethon is also Doerr’s fable about the precariousness of the book: a fragment that barely made it into the modern world, surviving only by the tenuous links between successive generations of readers. Books, a teacher tells Anna, are precious repositories “for the memories of people who have lived before. . . . But books, like people, die.” Elsewhere, another scribe reminds Anna that time “wipes the old books from the world,” and, likening Constantinople to an ark full of books, neatly twins this novel’s emphases: “The ark has hit the rocks, child. And the tide is washing in.”

The terminality of the message perhaps explains the frantic didacticism of all the theming. Libraries are everywhere here, from Constantinople to Idaho. In one of the book’s most tender episodes, Zeno meets an English soldier in Korea named Rex Browning, and surreptitiously falls in love with him. Rex is a classicist, who tells Zeno that he might be named for Zenodotus, “the first librarian at the library at Alexandria.” Later in the novel, back in England, Rex writes a book titled “Compendium of Lost Books.” The spaceship Argos offers an elegiac, troubling vision of life without actual libraries; its brain is a Siri-like oracle known as Sibyl, a vast digital library of everything we ever knew: “the collective wisdom of our species. Every map ever drawn, every census ever taken, every book ever published, every football match, every symphony, every edition of every newspaper, the genomic maps of over one million species—everything we can imagine and everything we might ever need.”

Gradually, you come to understand that the desperate cross-referencing and thematic reinforcing borrow not so much from the model of the Internet as from the model of the library. Just as this novel full of stories is also about storytelling, so this novel about the importance of libraries mimics a library; it is stuffed with texts and allusions and connections, an ideal compendium of “the collective wisdom of our species.”

It’s here, perhaps, that “Cloud Cuckoo Land” becomes an affecting document. As a novelist, Doerr is utterly unembarrassed by statement. For him, storytelling is entertainment and sermon; the novel is really a fable. Late Tolstoy might have approved. And since we are living in critical times, the lessons are made very legible: the book is at risk; the world is at risk; we should not seek out distant utopias but instead cultivate our burnt gardens. Above all—or, rather, underneath all—everything is connected. Seymour, vibrantly, morbidly alive to our self-destruction, realizes this:

Seymour studies the quantities of methane locked in melting Siberian permafrost. Reading about declining owl populations led him to deforestation which led to soil erosion which led to ocean pollution which led to coral bleaching, everything warming, melting, and dying faster than scientists predicted, every system on the planet connected by countless invisible threads to every other: cricket players in Delhi vomiting from Chinese air pollution, Indonesian peat fires pushing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere over California, million-acre bushfires in Australia turning what’s left of New Zealand’s glaciers pink.

If this sounds like it could almost have been written by Don DeLillo , there’s a reason. The apprehension that everything is connected is essentially a paranoid insight (and a useful one for the novelist, who can pose as esoteric decoder). What’s poignant here is the way one kind of connectivity helplessly collapses into another. Seymour’s Internet search, today’s version of a library search, is an exercise in scholarly connection, of the kind this novel also enjoys—everyone and everything is related by cross-reference and classical allusion and thematic inheritance. But “Cloud Cuckoo Land” embodies and imposes a darker connective energy, too. Climate change, after all, enforces an entirely justifiable paranoia: we are indeed part of a shared system, in which melting in one place arrives by flood in a second place and fire in yet another. One form of connectivity might be almost utopian; the other has become powerfully dystopian. History’s enormous optimistic library becomes reality’s enormous pessimistic prison. Each vision, as in Seymour’s alarmed search, fuels another in this book.

Artistically, this sincere moral and political urgency does the novel few favors, as the book veers between its relentless thematic coherence and wild fantasias of storytelling. But that urgency may also account for the novel’s brute didactic power; it is hard to read, without a shudder, the sections about the desperate and deluded Argonauts, committed to voyaging for centuries through space-time because life on earth has failed. A pity, then, and a telling one, that Doerr finally resolves nearly every story optimistically and soothingly. And Konstance’s hurtling spaceship? Oh, it turns out to be the biggest therapeutic contraption of all. ♦

A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

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By Anthony Lane

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'All the Light We Cannot See' is a heartening and hopeful wartime tale


David Bianculli

all the light we cannot see book review ny times

Newcomer Aria Mia Loberti plays Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix hide caption

Newcomer Aria Mia Loberti plays Marie-Laure in All the Light We Cannot See.

At a time when so much of what we see on television is devoted to ongoing coverage of war, you may not want to seek out a scripted drama about war – even long-ago World War II, and even a story based on Anthony Doerr's very popular novel. But All the Light We Cannot See, the new four-hour Netflix miniseries, is worthwhile and heartening. In the midst of the darkness and horror of war, the "Light" in the title refers to hope.

All the Light We Cannot See is told in several different time periods, and from several different perspectives – all leading to a climax in which everything somehow comes together. The main characters are two young children — a French girl named Marie-Laure and a German boy named Werner. He's a tinkerer who becomes adept at building and repairing all types of radios. She's blind, and is equally fascinated by the radio because she listens nightly to a shortwave broadcast, aimed at kids, hosted by a mysterious ham operator who calls himself the Professor.

In Paris, Marie-Laure is inspired by the Professor's messages of hope — and back in Germany, so is Werner, who intercepts the same broadcasts from his orphanage before being forced into service by the Nazis.

World War II In A New 'Light': Empathy Found In Surprising Places

Author Interviews

World war ii in a new 'light': empathy found in surprising places.

Eventually, the roles of these central characters are taken up by older actors. Werner, as played by Louis Hofmann, is now a teenager trained and dispatched by the Nazis to seek out illegal radio operators. And Marie-Laure, now played by Aria Mia Loberti, flees the city of Paris on foot after the Nazi occupation, suitcases in hand. She's led by her father Daniel, a museum director played by Mark Ruffalo , who's smuggling out some important museum valuables.

Their journey as refugees eventually takes them to the coastal town of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure's uncle Etienne, played by Hugh Laurie , is a member of the French resistance. In time, Werner, the young Nazi, is sent there to hunt down illegal radio operators. And Marie-Laure, discovering the secret location from which the Professor once made his defiantly hopeful broadcasts, decides to do the same.

Two authors on writing unlikable characters and the power of storytelling

NPR's Book of the Day

Two authors on writing unlikable characters and the power of storytelling.

This puts both Marie-Laure and her father in harm's way, hunted by other Nazis in addition to Werner, whose conflicted conscience is one of the strongest elements of All the Light We Cannot See. Laurie's character, an agoraphobic veteran of an earlier war, is touching too — but no one is as resonant, or as captivating, as Loberti as Marie-Laure.

Loberti, like the young woman she plays, is legally blind, and this is her first professional acting role — I didn't become aware of that until after I saw all four hours of this Netflix drama. I'm still blown away by how assuredly, and effectively, this relative newcomer carries the weight of her leading role. Co-creators Shawn Levy and Steven Knight, who directed and wrote this miniseries, didn't just fill a difficult and demanding part when they cast this impressive unknown. They also discovered a talented new actor.

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  • Netflix’s <i>All the Light We Cannot See</i> Transforms a Pulitzer-Winning Novel Into a Schmaltzy, Incoherent Mess

Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See Transforms a Pulitzer-Winning Novel Into a Schmaltzy, Incoherent Mess

A nthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See might be the most widely acclaimed book of the past decade. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for a National Book Award. Barack Obama made time to devour—and recommend —it while he was still in the White House. The New York Times called the novel “ hauntingly beautiful ” and named it one of the 10 best books of 2014 . But it wasn’t just a critical darling. All the Light became a cultural phenomenon, selling more than 15 million copies worldwide by the time Netflix greenlighted a TV adaptation in 2021. That series, which arrives on the streamer on Nov. 2, isn’t just inferior to the book; it’s a schmaltzy, incompetent, borderline offensive mess whose mere existence tarnishes the book’s legacy.

One clue that screenwriter Steven Knight ( Peaky Blinders , See ) and director Shawn Levy ( Stranger Things , Free Guy ) have done wrong by Doerr ’s story, of a blind French girl and a brilliant orphan turned reluctant German soldier in bombed-out Brittany during the final months of World War II, is that they’ve whittled down the 544-page doorstop to a skeletal four episodes. Another is that, unlike so many powerful authors who’ve helped shepherd their novels to the screen, Doerr is not among the series’ producers. Not that these red flags alone can account for how many disastrous choices went into the making of this maudlin show. Knight’s script is particularly flimsy, shallowly skimming each character’s surface and failing to meaningfully address the big moral questions that come with depicting a Nazi combatant as a good person.

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure, Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc in episode 102 of All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Timea Saghy/Netflix © 2023

At least All the Light ’s creators made one inspired decision, in casting Aria Mia Loberti, a newcomer with no formal training in acting, as heroine Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Like Marie, Loberti is sightless, but that shared experience only lays the groundwork for a magnificently present performance that draws out the intelligence and tenacity of a character who might otherwise have been reduced to a pitiable damsel in distress. Holed up alone in the walled city of Saint-Malo, where the Nazis maintained a stronghold for months after D-Day, Marie reads excerpts from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea over shortwave radio. The broadcast serves dual purposes. She hopes to reach her father Daniel ( Mark Ruffalo ) and uncle Etienne ( Hugh Laurie ), from whom she’s been separated. But she’s also doing courageous, illegal work for the Resistance , using the classic novel to send coded messages to Allied forces.

Elsewhere in Saint-Malo, at the crumbling hotel where his ever-shrinking regiment is billeted, Werner Pfennig ( Dark star Louis Hofmann) listens to Marie’s broadcasts while the bombs fall. These lonely teenagers have something in common: they both used to stay up late listening to a mysterious professor deliver florid monologues to children about science and philosophy on the frequency Marie is now using. The human brain exists within the utter darkness of the human skull but, he explains, has the capacity to illuminate the entire world: “Even in complete darkness there is still light inside your mind.” The professor’s humanism has sustained Werner, who grew up in an orphanage before his prodigious skill with radios earned him a place at an exclusive and brutal Nazi military school, through an “old man’s war” that he despises. Soon, one of the show’s many interchangeably sadistic Nazi officers orders him to track down Marie.

All the Light We Cannot See. Louis Hofmann as Werner Pfennig in episode 103 of All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Katalin Vermes/Netflix © 2023

The two seem destined to meet, and you’d better believe that in a story this predictable they will, but under what circumstances? Will Werner save Marie or bring about her demise? And will he get to her before Nazi jewel plunderer Reinhold von Rumpel (Lars Eidinger) comes looking for the legendary—and legendarily cursed—diamond that Daniel rescued from the natural history museum where he worked before the Germans sacked Paris? These questions should be enough to give the show some suspense. But poorly paced scripts, cluttered with inopportune flashbacks to Marie and Werner’s childhoods, kill any momentum it generates in the present.

Even more distracting is the show’s squandering of a talented cast. Laurie is fine but underutilized as a turn-of-the-century dandy shellshocked into seclusion by the horrors he experienced in the First World War—an intriguing character, but one viewers barely get to know. Eidinger, a wonderfully weird German actor best known in the U.S. as a star of Babylon Berlin who’s also a favorite of Irma Vep auteur Olivier Assays , feels wasted in the Christoph-Waltz -lite role of a pithy, cutthroat Nazi. Worst of all is the conspicuous miscasting of Ruffalo, who has done breathtakingly great work in recent titles like I Know This Much Is True and Dark Waters but is breathtakingly bad here. Actors get too much blowback for imperfect accents, but Ruffalo’s English pronunciations are so mannered, I thought at first that the character was affecting a silly voice. That artifice infects all aspects of what becomes a stiff performance as Marie’s loving Papa. It’s also worth asking why French characters are speaking British-accented English in the first place. (The Nazis, for their part, speak German-accented English.)

All the Light We Cannot See. (L to R) Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, Andrea Deck as Sandrina in episode 103 of All the Light We Cannot See. Cr. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix © 2023

Theirs are not the only underwritten characters. Loberti gives Marie a spark of vitality, but on paper she is one-dimensionally brave and good. Knight’s script does a more dangerous disservice to Werner, despite Hofmann’s competent portrayal. Like Doerr’s book, All the Light asks viewers to empathize with a character who wore the Nazi uniform and played an active, if grudging, role in Hitler’s atrocities—a leap that will be even harder to make now, amid the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in the U.S. and abroad, than it would’ve been for readers a decade ago. Oddly, the series barely mentions, and at no point truly reckons with, Werner’s culpability. In one early scene, a French resident of Saint-Malo hurls invective at the high-minded soldier as he walks the debris-littered streets, and I got the sense that I was supposed to feel sorry for him. How dare the citizens of occupied France judge a Nazi by his swastika armband!

The resulting series is at once morally simplistic—all characters are framed as either purely good or wholly evil—and alarmingly insistent that there were, well, “ very fine people on both sides ” of the Western front. Instead of locating any real insight in Marie and Werner’s story, Knight offers empty koans and self-satisfied truisms: “Everything has a voice. You just have to listen.” “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?” “Some secrets are better kept secret.” And, of course, “the most important light is the light we cannot see,” which nods to Marie’s blindness as well as Werner’s existence as an enlightened soul hidden amid the darkness of the Reich. 

Beyond the knowledge that not all Nazis enjoyed being Nazis, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from this series that seems so convinced of its own importance. Not just a bungled literary adaptation, but also a pointless drama that borrows emotional weight from the real history of one of humanity’s darkest hours, All the Light We Cannot See is doubly disappointing.

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Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ pinpoints 2 lives in war

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“All the Light We Cannot See” is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighborhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumored to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl — a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4,000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny — to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focusing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc — his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices — is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to classify as good and evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s — we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” a “million droplets of fog”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than an electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching — for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other — locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined on scales they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humor-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak — which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.

Cha is the author of “Follow Her Home.”

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Americans in Normandy

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr review – a story of morality, science and Nazi occupation

T his novel will be a piece of luck for anyone with a long plane journey or beach holiday ahead. It is such a page-turner, entirely absorbing: one of those books in which the talent of the storyteller surmounts stylistic inadequacies and ultimately defies one's better judgment.

Good things first: the story, which is set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Doerr's energetic imagination seems steeped in the favourite books of childhood: Marie-Laure is a little blind French girl, motherless, with the freckles of Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mining town of Zollverein, near Essen. He is a boy of seven with white hair, like snow, whose presence is "like being in the room with a feather". Werner may be tiny, but he is no Peter Pan. He has a gift for science, and the intricacies of radios in particular. He can fix anything.

Marie-Laure is six years old when the novel begins in Paris in 1934, where she lives with her beloved Papa, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. There, hidden in its vaults for the past 200 years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its centre: the Sea of Flame.

Marie-Laure's father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and delightful miniatures – of the streets and houses of Paris, for instance. The miniatures teach Marie-Laure, using her fingers as eyes, how to navigate the city. Ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille. Though this is a novel Dickens would read with some interest, it is Jules Verne and Darwin who are the key to Marie-Laure's future. She devours Around the World in Eighty Days , Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , and Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle .

Werner's talent brings him to the attention of the Nazis, and he is sent to a national school that trains, ferociously, an elite cadre for the Third Reich. The chapters on Werner's schooling, and the fate of his brutalised friend Frederick, are the best in the book. Doerr's prose needs no embellishment as this section gently probes the question of how ordinary German people could have done what they did.

Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris in 1940, and take refuge in Saint‑Malo, on the coast of Brittany. Her father has been entrusted with the Sea of Flame. Werner's genius is put to work tracking radio transmissions across Russia and Central Europe, until he is sent to Saint-Malo, where Marie‑Laure's great‑uncle Etienne uses his radio transmitter on behalf of the Resistance. The pursuit of the Sea of Flame continues as the US Air Force blasts the walled city to smithereens two months after the D-Day landings.

Doerr constructs an unusual edifice, made up of fable and the prodigious inventions of the mechanical, technical and natural world. Snails, molluscs, the creatures of earth and sky, the properties of gemstones and coal, all the technological marvels embraced by the Nazis are converted into sources of wonder, as the intricacies of radio waves, and the data they hurtle through the air, offer an alternative way to harness both science and the goodness in human nature.

Unfortunately, Doerr's prose style is high-pitched, operatic, relentless. Short sharp sentences, echoing the static of the radios, make the first hundred pages very tiresome to read, as does the American idiom. Somehow it is strange to listen to the thoughts of Marie-Laure and Werner and the many other characters, both German and French, give forth such Yankee utterances as "Werner … you shouldn't think big." Sidewalks, apartment houses, the use of "sure" instead of "yes' – all these cut across the historical background that Doerr has so meticulously researched. No noun sits upon the page without the decoration of at least one adjective, and sometimes, alas, with two or three. And these adjectives far too often are of the glimmering, glowing, pellucid variety. Eyes are wounded, nights are luminous and starlit, seagulls are alabaster. "Fields enwombed with hedges" is almost the last straw. And so the novel is far too long.

Nevertheless, often Doerr rises again as, entranced with the story he is telling, he lets the overwriting slip away. And his attention to detail is magnificent. Always you want to know what happens next to Marie-Laure, to her father, her great-uncle Etienne, to Werner and Jutta, and to his considerable parade of other characters. Much can be forgiven a Pied Piper like Doerr, who can pour his obsessive energies into a tale such as this.

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All the Light We Cannot See

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About The Book

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About The Author

Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr is the author of the New York Times bestselling Cloud Cuckoo Land,  which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and  All the Light We Cannot See , winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Carnegie Medal, the Alex Award, and a #1  New York Times  bestseller. He is also the author of the story collections  Memory Wall  and  The Shell Collector , the novel  About Grace , and the memoir  Four Seasons in Rome . He has won five O. Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, the National Magazine Award for fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Story Prize. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two sons.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 3, 2023)
  • Length: 560 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668017340

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Raves and Reviews

“Exquisite…Mesmerizing…Nothing short of brilliant.”

– Alice Evans, Portland Oregonian

“Hauntingly beautiful.”

– Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“History intertwines with irresistible fiction—secret radio broadcasts, a cursed diamond, a soldier’s deepest doubts—into a richly compelling, bittersweet package.”

– Mary Pols, People

“Anthony Doerr again takes language beyond mortal limits.”

– Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“The whole enthralls.”

– Good Housekeeping

“Enthrallingly told, beautifully written…Every piece of back story reveals information that charges the emerging narrative with significance, until at last the puzzle-box of the plot slides open to reveal the treasure hidden inside.”

– Amanda Vaill, Washington Post

“Stupendous…A beautiful, daring, heartbreaking, oddly joyous novel.”

– David Laskin, The Seattle Times

“Stunning and ultimately uplifting… Doerr’s not-to-be-missed tale is a testament to the buoyancy of our dreams, carrying us into the light through the darkest nights.”

– Entertainment Weekly

“Doerr has packed each of his scenes with such refractory material that All the Light We Cannot See reflects a dazzling array of themes….Startlingly fresh.”

– John Freeman, The Boston Globe

“Gorgeous… moves with the pace of a thriller… Doerr imagines the unseen grace, the unseen light that, occasionally, surprisingly, breaks to the surface even in the worst of times.”

– Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle

“Incandescent… a luminous work of strife and transcendence… with characters as noble as they are enthralling”

– Hamilton Cain, O, the Oprah magazine

“Perfectly captured…Doerr writes sentences that are clear-eyed, taut, sweetly lyrical.”

– Josh Cook, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A beautiful, expansive tale…Ambitious and majestic.”

– Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times

“This tough-to-put-down book proves its worth page after lyrical page…Each and every person in this finely spun assemblage is distinct and true.”

– Sharon Peters, USA Today

“Doerr is an exquisite stylist; his talents are on full display.”

– Alan Cheuse, NPR

“Vivid…[ All the Light We Cannot See ] brims with scrupulous reverence for all forms of life. The invisible light of the title shines long after the last page.”

– Tricia Springstubb, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Intricate… A meditation on fate, free will, and the way that, in wartime, small choices can have vast consequences.”

– New Yorker

“Doerr deftly guides All the Light We Cannot See toward the day Werner’s and Marie-Laure lives intersect during the bombing of Saint-Malo in what may be his best work to date.”

– Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

“To open a book by Anthony Doerr is to open a door on humanity…His sentences shimmer…His paragraphs are luminous with bright, sparkling beauty.”

– Martha Anne Toll, Washington Independent Review of Books

“Endlessly bold and equally delicate…An intricate miracle of invention, narrative verve, and deep research lightly held, but above all a miracle of humanity….Anthony Doerr’s novel celebrates—and also accomplishes—what only the finest art can: the power to create, reveal, and augment experience in all its horror and wonder, heartbreak and rapture.”

– Shelf Awareness


– Carmen Callil, The Guardian (UK)

“Intricately structured… All the Light We Cannot See is a work of art and of preservation.”

– Jane Ciabattari, BBC

“A revelation.”

– Michael Magras,

“Anthony Doerr writes beautifully… A tour de force.”

– Elizabeth Reed, Deseret Morning News

“A novel to live in, learn from, and feel bereft over when the last page is turned, Doerr’s magnificently drawn story seems at once spacious and tightly composed. . . . Doerr masterfully and knowledgeably recreates the deprived civilian conditions of war-torn France and the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers.”

– Booklist (starred review)

“Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“If a book’s success can be measured by its ability to move readers and the number of memorable characters it has, Story Prize-winner Doerr’s novel triumphs on both counts. He convinces readers...that war—despite its desperation, cruelty, and harrowing moral choices—cannot negate the pleasures of the world.”

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This novel has the physical and emotional heft of a masterpiece…[All the Light We Cannot See] presents two characters so interesting and sympathetic that readers will keep turning the pages hoping for an impossibly happy ending…Highly recommended for fans of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.”

– Evelyn Beck, Library Journal (starred review)

"What a delight! This novel has exquisite writing and a wonderfully suspenseful story. A book you'll tell your friends about..."

– Frances Itani, author of Deafening

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece, its many threads coming together so perfectly. Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion. The story still lives on in my head.”

– Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“ All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling, epic work of fiction. Anthony Doerr writes beautifully about the mythic and the intimate, about snails on beaches and armies on the move, about fate and love and history and those breathless, unbearable moments when they all come crashing together.”

– Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

“Doerr sees the world as a scientist, but feels it as a poet. He knows about everything —radios, diamonds, mollusks, birds, flowers, locks, guns—but he also writes a line so beautiful, creates an image or scene so haunting, it makes you think forever differently about the big things—love, fear, cruelty, kindness, the countless facets of the human heart. Wildly suspenseful, structurally daring, rich in detail and soul, Doerr’s new novel is that novel, the one you savor, and ponder, and happily lose sleep over, then go around urging all your friends to read—now.”

– J.R. Moehringer, author of Sutton and The Tender Bar

“A tender exploration of this world's paradoxes; the beauty of the laws of nature and the terrible ends to which war subverts them; the frailty and the resilience of the human heart; the immutability of a moment and the healing power of time. The language is as expertly crafted as the master locksmith's models in the story, and the settings as intricately evoked. A compelling and uplifting novel.”

– M.L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans

“The craftsmanship of Doerr’s book is rooted in his ability to inhabit the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner…[A] fine novel.”

– Steve Novak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Beautifully written… Soulful and addictive.”

– Chris Stuckenschneider, The Missourian

“Doerr conjures up a vibrating, crackling world…Intricately, beautifully crafted.”

– Rebecca Kelley, Bustle

“There is so much in this book. It is difficult to convey the complexity, the detail, the beauty and the brutality of this simple story.”

– Carole O'Brien, Aspen Daily News

“Sometimes a novel doesn’t merely transport. It immerses, engulfs, keeps you caught within its words until the very end, when you blink and remember there’s a world beyond the pages. All the Light We Cannot See is such a book… Vibrant, poignant, delicately exquisite. Despite the careful building of time and place (so vivid you fall between the pages), it’s not a story of history; it’s a story of people living history.”

– Historical Novel Society

Awards and Honors

  • Pulitzer Prize
  • National Book Award Finalist
  • Grand Canyon Reader Award Nominee (AZ)
  • ALA Alex Award
  • ALA Notable Book
  • Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award Nominee
  • ALA Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
  • Heather's Pick - Fiction

Resources and Downloads

Freshman reading:.

University of Idaho (2015/2016) Case Western Reserve University (2016/2017)

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  • Book Cover Image (jpg): All the Light We Cannot See Media Tie-In Trade Paperback 9781668017340

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Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot see book review ny times

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is an epic work of historical fiction. If you haven’t read it yet, add it to your list immediately. It truly is a must-read.

I remember when All the Light We Cannot See  was published, it made all of the top reads of 2014 lists, including a big endorsement from President Obama. While I knew someday I would read it, I wanted to read it at the right time. When it comes to big and epic stories, you can’t just pick it up on a whim. Especially with a story that sits at 530 pages, you have to go in ready for a big story. And usually, when stories are that long, it will be a slow burn. All the Light We Cannot See might be the definition of a slow burn read but it’s so worth it as everything comes together in the end.

The story is about a blind French girl (Marie-Laure) and a German boy (Werner) whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It alternates between multiple perspectives but mainly we read it from their point of views. Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. For more about the synopsis, check out my preview here .

Nonlinear plot

An interesting style choice by the author was to present the story in a nonlinear (out of chronological order) style in a sense. Let me explain, there’s two storylines happening that will eventually connect. It begins on Aug. 7, 1944 in Saint-Malo when American shelling and bombing as well as British naval gunfire arrive to defeat the Germans that were left in the town. Marie-Laure is alone at her home clutching a stone the size of a pigeon’s egg. And Werner is also in Saint-Malo held up in the Hotel of Bees as the bombing begins.

It then jumps back to 1934 when Marie-Laure’s father sends her on a children’s tour of the museum where he works. This is where we learn about the stone called the Sea of Flames, which comes with a curse: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another. We then meet Werner who grows up three hundred miles northeast of Paris in a place called Zollverein, outside of Essen, Germany. Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are raised at Children’s House, an orphanage. Through this first section, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight completely and her father creates a miniature version of their neighborhood so she can be comfortable walking outside. Werner manages to repair a radio while discovering his natural skill for circuitry. What Werner and Jutta listen to on the radio plays a key role later in the book.

Eventually Marie-Laure and her father have to leave Paris after the Nazi invasion and go to Saint-Malo while Werner is forced to join the elite paramilitary school for Hitler Youth.

Then the story, goes back to 1944. And after that, back to 1940. I really liked the nonlinear style because it definitely shows that is leading up to a huge event. And despite the large size, the book features short chapters so it does move at a good pace. But again, you have to be patient because it slowly builds to something major.

Darkness and light

Marie-Laure spends her life darkness, however, her other senses are quite amplified. Whereas Werner is focused on sound. But, arguably, they both aren’t spending time in the light— physically for Marie-Laure and for Werner, as a matter of circumstance in the school and in war for Werner. War is tragic, bleak and traumatizing and Werner is unsure if he’ll ever see a ‘light’ again.

The descriptions in this novel are outstanding and it makes you feel as if you’ve experiencing what’s happening in the novel. I’m in awe of writers who can compose a book of a long ago era and it make it feel so real . The sheer darkness of WWII is impactful and gut-wrenching.

Another big theme surrounding this novel is that of sacrifice. Werner is forced to join the Nazis even though he doesn’t believe in the cause and he’s concerned after things he’s seen and done, there’s no hope for his humanity. But as we always learn, there’s always hope somewhere.

Incredible cast of characters

From rooting for Marie-Laure to hoping Werner can break away, those are two of some of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a while. But the author also introduces some fantastic characters from Marie-Laure’s great-Uncle Etienne to the housemaid Madame Manec to Werner’s first friend who stood up to the Nazis, Frederick.

The Sea of Flames does play a key part in the novel but if you’re worried this means it’s a fantasy, it’s not at all. It serves a deeper theme of the danger of possessions and the extreme lengths of Nazi gem collector Von Rumpel will go to achieve it.

This is a complete story. It’s big in nature and often times heartbreaking.

But at the core, is doing the right thing and the power of being good to one another.

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all the light we cannot see book review ny times

Amy deGraff

Wednesday 1st of July 2020

I recently read and devoured "All the Light We Cannot See." It has staid with me in such a deep way. I couldn''t find any one who had read it and thought of finding an on-line discussion group when by miracle I found yours. However, I cannot figure out how or where to type in my answers. Any suggestions?

Tuesday 16th of November 2021

Maybe I fell asleep while reading this wonderful book, but what do you think happened to the stone and what was the iron key about?

@Heather Caliendo,

Heather Caliendo

Friday 3rd of July 2020

Hi Amy! Yes, this is such an impactful book! If you go the book club questions article, feel free to type in your thoughts there in the comment section and connect with other readers. Let me know if you have any questions! Here’s the article:

Movie Reviews

Tv/streaming, collections, great movies, chaz's journal, contributors, all the light we cannot see.

all the light we cannot see book review ny times

Whatever was transcendent or lyrical about Anthony Doerr ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” gets lost in translation from page to screen in this hackneyed and surface-level adaptation from screenwriter Steven Knight and director Shawn Levy . Any insight into the human condition is traded away in favor of underdeveloped characters who speak in on-the-nose metaphors; World War II atrocities play out like superhero movies stuffed with cheap thrills and big explosions (and what appears to be CGI Nazi stormtroopers). 

Mostly set in the Nazi-occupied French coastal town of St. Malo in 1944, the four-episode miniseries follows the lives of two teenagers. There's the blind French teenager named Marie-Laure LeBlanc ( Aria Mia Loberti ), who broadcasts an illegal radio show each night in hopes of locating her missing father, Daniel ( Mark Ruffalo ), once the keeper of the locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, or her uncle Etienne ( Hugh Laurie ), a member of the French Resistance. Then there's Werner Pfennig ( Louis Hofmann ), a German orphan who was forced to join the Nazis because of his proficiency with radio technology.

As young people, both Marie-Laure and Werner grew up listening to a radio show broadcasting at the 1310 frequency in which a calm-voiced host known as the Professor taught lessons about reason and sense through philosophy and science, always accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Claire De Lune.” A plot point hinges on several characters not realizing that Etienne is the Professor despite the voice obviously being that of Hugh Laurie, and it's one of the many aspects of the book that just does not lend itself well to adaptation. 

Somehow shoe-horned between these two interlocking stories is Reinhold von Rumpel ( Lars Eidinger ), a Nazi with a vague yet terminal illness searching for a jewel called the Sea of Flames, which he is convinced is in the possession of the LeBlancs, because of its supposed healing qualities. Eidinger plays Reinhold on one deeply unhinged note throughout all four episodes, never adding any interior layers or finding a rhythm that fits the rest of the series. 

This is a key problem with much of the acting in Levy's adaptation. Each actor feels like they’re playing a character rather than something resembling real life. Part of the fault here lies in Knight’s script, which is either laden with clunky exposition or overly flowery language. It also doesn’t help that each of the French characters is played with actors doing British accents (except, of course, Laurie, who just sounds like his normal British self), despite the German characters all being played by actual German actors. Then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who cannot do any accent whatsoever and therefore adopts several different ones throughout his screen time. 

Levy’s directorial choices leave much to be desired as well. Marie-Laure is often filmed with precious close-ups that present her as an object of pure goodness, but she is given little to no moments that show her depth of character or, frankly, that give Loberti a chance to show her talent as an actress. The idea that “everything has a voice, you just have to listen” becomes a philosophical worldview she shares with her father and an oft-repeated line. Unfortunately, this repetition slowly strips the phrase of any real meaning. In the series' most cringe-inducing moment, Marie-Laure utters it like a quip in an action film, just before she opens fire on an aggressor. 

Hofmann doesn’t fare much better, playing Werner with the same deer caught-in-the-headlights look in any situation, whether confronting a commanding officer or being brutally hazed as a teen at the Nazi training school known as the National Political Institute of Education. One of the few scenes in which Hoffmann can break out of this one-note stupor is when he's assigned to work with another radio operator played by Felix Kammerer , who was so wonderful in last year’s “All Quiet On The Western Front.” Kammerer, with his soulful eyes, transcends the mediocre material and brings a raw and rare authenticity to his character. 

That a performer as naturally expressive as Kammerer is used in approximately two scenes is a perfect example of how Levy's "All the Light We Cannot See" is one artistic miscalculation after another. Great actors and good source material are not enough when they’re in the hands of the wrong filmmakers, and nothing about this final product suggests that Levy or Knight was the right choice to bring this story to the screen. Their vision for Doerr's novel is shallow, messy, and, most unfortunately, instantly forgettable. 

Now streaming on Netflix. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Film credits.

All the Light We Cannot See movie poster

123 minutes

Aria Mia Loberti as Marie-Laure

Louis Hofmann as Werner

Lars Eidinger as Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel

Hugh Laurie as Etienne LeBlanc

Mark Ruffalo as Daniel LeBlanc

Jakob Diehl as Captain Mueller

James Dryden as Monsieur Caron

Corin Silva as Frank Volkheimer

Marion Bailey as Madame Manec

Nell Sutton as Young Marie-Laure

Writer (based on the novel by)

  • Anthony Doerr

Writer (developed by)

  • Steven Knight


  • Tobias A. Schliessler
  • Dean Zimmerman
  • Casey Cichocki
  • Jonathan Corn
  • James Newton Howard

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'All the Light We Cannot See' Is a Timeless Lesson on Empathy

The limited series, inspired by Anthony Doerr's popular novel, is streaming on Netflix on November 2.

The Professor in All the Light We Cannot See is a dream come true for any child who has wanted to know why the sky is blue, where the light goes at night, or a million other questions. The omniscient voice on the radio, beloved by children all around Europe in Anthony Doerr’s, All the Light We Cannot See breathes magic into every fact he shares. 

“What do we call visible light?” the Professor asks. “We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

On November 2, Netflix will debut the first episode of a limited series adaptation of Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, offering a glimpse into the worlds of two young people coming of age against the backdrop of the Second World War. Though the series itself has opened to mixed reviews, there is still much to learn from the messages of resilience, hope, and perseverance woven into the narrative that has delighted readers for nearly a decade. 

All the Light We Cannot See tells a story of resistance through the experiences of Marie-Laure, a young French girl, and Werner, a young German boy, and the many lives they touch. The heroine of the story, Marie-Laure, loses her sight and becomes blind as a young girl, and later flees Paris with her father when Nazi forces invade . They seek refuge in the seaside town of Saint-Malo where her great uncle has also found solace in his family home. 

Werner is a young orphan living with his sister in a children's home where he spends his time inventing things—most notably a working radio—out of odds and ends he finds while exploring. Though he is often conflicted by the propaganda around him, he is ultimately conscripted into the Hitler Youth, and shortly after sent to war. 

As the story follows each character, we are brought into their worlds as we witness the many everyday choices they make—either conforming with or resisting the forces shaping their lives. Seeing how each of these small choices has ripple effects, far beyond the experiences of each character, is one of the story’s most valuable lessons. 

Lori Weintrob, Ph. D. , is a professor of history and the founding director of the Wagner College Holocaust Center , in Staten Island, New York. Throughout her career, she has studied courage and resilience, especially among Jewish communities, and says that stories like All the Light We Cannot See are especially important to exploring and understanding the very real moral decisions each of us is called upon to make in our everyday lives. 

“ All the Light We Cannot See is critical in teaching the lessons of the past because at the core of our lives is ethical decision-making,” she explains. ”Those of all ages, but particularly youth, must realize how much their voices and actions matter, to empower them to act with courage and empathy.”

Throughout the story, each individual wrestles with questions of right and wrong, weighing the appropriate time to act or hold back, wondering when to stay silent and when to speak out —and often it is the children who press their elders, looking for answers. 

In Doerr’s novel, Werner’s younger sister, Jutta, challenges him again and again—both his active choices and his passive conformity alike. “Is it right,” Jutta asks, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”

Weintrob notes that one of her favorite reflections on the Holocaust comes from Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer: "Thou Shalt not be a perpetrator. Thou shalt not be a victim. But above all, thou shalt not be a bystander." 

“What that means is that we must prepare youth to resist,” she says, and All the Light We Cannot See offers a beautiful blueprint for just that.

The story is full of small acts of courage and resistance from unassuming people, young and old alike. Bakers hide coded messages in bread, radio operators transmit information to the Allied troops, children and women carry secret notes, record ship movements, and commit small acts of sabotage to weaken the Nazi war effort. Little by little, these small moments of resistance add up over time, until the Allied forces arrive at the city’s walls, aided only by the nearly imperceptible assistance of everyday citizens working together. 

Weintrob points to such efforts during World War II as examples of how civilians—even children and young adults, like resistance fighter Sophie Scholl —did so much to work against the brutality and inhumanity of their times. 

“Sometimes in discussion of war, there’s a sense of helplessness, only focusing on what seems evil,” Weintrob shares. “In reality, small acts of goodness and understanding are more important than ever in wartime and children can be involved. Rather than excluding their friends as the other, they can show kindness and support. It’s never too young to learn how to help others.”

Jessica Turner , an author, creator, and mom of three, has loved All The Light We Cannot See ever since she read it for the first time nearly a decade ago. She co-hosted a screening event for the release of the Netflix series by the same name and says that for her, part of the value in sharing the story with her children is the opportunity it creates to explore difficult topics together. 

“It can be difficult to discuss hard topics with children, but it is incredibly important,” she says. “Life includes suffering, so giving children tools like empathy, compassion, and a wider worldview will help prepare them for adulthood. I think watching All the Light We Cannot See is an opportunity to talk about resilience, relationships, and that we can all do something to bring good to the world.”

For Turner, the series is especially important because it offers an accessible portrayal of a horrible time in history and provides a springboard for conversations around racism, bigotry, ableism, resilience, and love. 

“The theme of humanity and that each of us having a light to share with others is one that is universal and beautifully portrayed in the limited series,” she says. “Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness.” 

Weintrob notes that while it’s important for young people to remember the valuable lessons in the history of World War II—not just the heroic acts of the allied forces,” but also the extraordinary heroism of ‘ordinary people’” as Leo Ullman, a Jewish survivor from Amsterdam once reflected. 

In the novel, Marie-Laure puts it best when she says to Werner: “It’s not bravery. ​​I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”

In a time filled with uncertainty, violence, and the chaos of daily life, it can be easy to forget that raising children to be kind, empathetic, caring individuals who recognize others’ humanity is arguably one of the most important jobs of parenthood. Stories like these—whether on the page or on the screen—are a wonderful reminder to us all that one small, ‘ordinary’ person can do so much good, and even the smallest acts of kindness can fill the world with light. 

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Read the original article on Parents .

Timea Saghy/Netflix


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