Postal Reading group
February 2019
Notes on the book All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

I first read All the light we cannot see a few years ago, shortly after it was published. It was a book which had ‘stuck with me’, and I can still remember much of the plot, and even the detail of some of the scenes. Although I haven’t re-read this, I did look back at some sections, and even a casual glance would reveal some things which I had missed the first time round. There’s a lot in this book; for that reason it is a good choice for this group, and I suspect that even now, there may be things which I’ve missed.

The book is set in occupied France and Germany during the second World War. As such, there are inevitably some distressing scenes, so this isn’t a book which you entirely enjoy, but it is well written, and the short chapters make it a quick read too. What is particularly remarkable is that the author has also succeeded in writing a ‘clever’ book. The plot is well constructed, and, on the whole, succeeds in drawing together the three main themes. Even the weaker aspects still fit together, and the writing helps to move the plot along, so these never seem obtrusive. Doerr also seems able to write with the accuracy of a scientist, and the imagination of a novelist, which is no mean feat.

There are three main themes in the book: communications and electromagnetic radiation, the bombing of St. Malo, and the French hiding national treasures to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazis. The story opens with the blind girl, Marie-Laure during the Allied landings towards the end of the war. This then is one reference to the book’s title. The other comes a little later with Werner and his sister listening to the radio broadcasts. Radio waves, like light, are just different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, and can be thought of as “light we cannot see”.

The ability of radio to transmit a voice across country boundaries, both in peace and war, brought Werner and Marie-Laure together, just as Werner and his sister Jutta were united in their enjoyment of listening to the broadcasts. In another way, Werner is trapped in the mining town of Zollverein, and Marie-Laure is trapped by her blindness, with the radio offering both of them an opportunity of escape. Similarly, this is a testament to the power of science to inspire curious children, before the inevitability of politics and war drove a wedge between them.

The second theme is that of St. Malo, which is referred to as “the jewel in the crown of the French coast”. It seems apposite, therefore, that this should have been chosen to be the final resting place of the gemstone, although with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps a location away from the coast might have been a better choice. The town was subjected to heavy bombardment during the Allied landings, with under one quarter of all buildings left standing at the end. From the point of view of the book its a good choice, not only showing the damage done by the bombing, but also neatly finishing with Marie-Laure and Werner in the same place. Once again, in a sense, it is the radio which unites them. As an aside, given the damage which was sustained, it is impossible not to question whether the residents of St. Malo might have preferred German occupation to the Allied landings?

The third theme is that of the gemstone and the evacuation of national treasures from Paris. While there is some criticism that this is a slightly contrived element which was only necessary to move the story from Paris to St. Malo, it is at least based on historical events. I don’t know whether there was such a stone with the specific legends attached to it, but it is at least believable. Interestingly, even Von Rumpel is an interesting character: although he is thoroughly disagreeable, if it were not for the war, he might at least have used his knowledge to more honest ends.

A possible additional theme is the Nazi school in Schulpforta. When I first read this book, I wondered if this was a real place. The existence of such schools, at that time, is not controversial, but the names might have been changed. However, an internet search reveals that it is real and is still a highly selective independent school. Frederick’s poor eyesight adds a further human touch to the story, even if his memorising the sight tests was one of the least believable aspects! It is also interesting that the delight at Werner securing a place totally obscures any thought that this might not be right for the child; a situation which sadly persists to this day.

In conclusion this is an excellent book with plenty to stimulate discussion. The three themes are brought together well, even allowing for the slightly contrived story of the gemstone. It is well written, and even some of the more unpleasant scenes during the war do not detract from the readability. That the author has managed to convey some of the inspirational nature of science is a real bonus, and rare in any novel.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler