All the Light We Cannot See

A beautifully written account of WWII France and two teenagers who find themselves on opposite sides. | A book review by

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. 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, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. (Summary via

This is another award-winning book that I’ve heard nothing but good things about. And since I have a soft spot for WWII fiction (see here, here, here, and here), I knew I had to pick it up. All the Light We Cannot See focuses on two teenagers: One is a blind French girl whose father helps her flee to a small town by the sea when the Nazis invade Paris; the other is a German boy with a proclivity towards mechanics, which leads the Nazis to give him special responsibilities. The pair is linked, though they don’t know it at first.

As the story switches between Marie-Laure and Werner, and occasionally giving us a peek into the Nazi search for one of the most valuable jewels in Europe, we see the two children grow. The contrast between Marie-Laure, blind but not helpless, desperate to reach her shell-shocked uncle and do something for the war effort, and Werner, a young and impressionable German boy who sees the brutality of the Nazi regime but feels helpless to stop it, is fascinating. It’s heartbreaking to watch an intelligent, kind boy become subsumed by the horrific culture around him, but watching Marie-Laure go from afraid and lonely to strong in her own right is uplifting.

The prose, of course, is beautiful. I don’t typically read books just for the quality of the writing, and fortunately this book has the plot and characters to back it up, but there were sentences in this book that required me to stop and re-read them just to absorb their beauty. This book won’t leave you sobbing like Code Name Verity; it’s a quieter, more introspective glimpse into the lives of two very different teenagers caught up in the midst of a destructive war.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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About Monica

I am obsessed with all things books. I'm a music teacher by day and a freelance editor by night.

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