The Lives of the Least Amid The Greatest of Human Dramas


All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Reading today’s fiction writers, you might notice, as I have, that an eloquent voice and style may not keep you in thrall. Just as a writer’s story can keep you rushing to the next page despite a rather plebeian voice and ability to command language, so eloquence can shout down any vestige of story present. This is hardly the case with Anthony Doerr’s latest, All The Light We Cannot See. His is the rarest of literary gifts, the ability to tell an über-compelling story while doing so via a distinctive voice and true eloquence. It’s very possible that this tandem doesn’t occur, despite a writer’s abilities, unless underlain by a marked passion for the subject matter.


The story here is a tandem one, set during World War II, the tale of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and Werner Pfennig, a slip of a German boy with a talent for the new science of electronics. As the story begins, Marie Laure is eight or nine, Werner some four years older. Marie Laure’s great-uncle Etienne has been deeply affected by the First World War and stays locked up in his home, but when the girl’s father brings her to the westernmost town of Saint-Malo, her innocence and inquiring mind bring Etienne out of his war-induced shell. Meanwhile, Werner is being seduced via Nazi propaganda into joining the Wehrmacht. There he shows remarkable aptitude for understanding and building electronic gadgets, and is soon trucked off to the Eastern Front to use his gizmos. Marie-Laure stays locked in Etienne’s home, withstanding bombings, Nazi brutality, near-starvation, and the possibility of death at the hands of a greedy German officer.

This book has been highly touted, and that’s as it should be. I can think of few books in recent years that are so well composed and which have affected me deeply as both reader and writer. The lives Doerr has given us in this book are peripheral to one of the world’s greatest dramas, but lives that are affected to the deepest degree by this horrid war. If there’s a project common to the best writers of the twenty-first century, it’s just that: detailing the lives of the least amid the greatest of human dramas.

My Rating: 19 of 20 stars

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