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Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
— Anthony Doerr, "All the Light We Cannot See"

War stories are intrinsically sad, and this one is no exception. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to state that a book set during the Second World War has sadness and cruelty in it. But it is also a story of hope, more specifically the hope of a lively and curious mind.

The book alternates between the stories of Werner, an orphan living with his sister in a children’s home in a mining town in Germany, and Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Often I find this style of alternating chapters frustrating, because usually there will be characters that I’m more interested in than others. However, I found that I was quickly invested in both Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s tales. They don’t appear to have much in common at all, until you realise that both have a lively sense of curiosity about the world and how things work. Both face challenges to their desire to learn: Werner is destined for the mines when he turns fifteen, and for Marie-Laure even the cost of a braille book is prohibitive. 

The outbreak of the war quickly turns both their lives upside-down, but in the process provides Werner with unexpected opportunities. Because of his knack with repairing radios, he is sent to an elite military school. At first this is a blessing, until he realises that it is, in fact, a curse.

Speaking of curses, in the meantime, Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father who is potentially the guardian of a cursed diamond entrusted to him by the museum. Or perhaps not. For security, several replicas of the diamond were created and sent away with different caretakers, none of them aware of who is carrying the real thing.

This is a beautifully written book, with some wonderful descriptions in it. For example, Werner’s sister Jutta has a “round face and a mashed cumulus of white hair” while another character is described as having “pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of raw sole”. “Metallic, tattered moonlight shatters across the road” and Jutta “sleeps in the ultramarine shadows of the girls’ dormitory and dreams of light thickening and settling across a field like snow.” I really adored the way words were used in this book – the poetic descriptions cast soft purple shadows of beauty across an era that was anything but. The span of time, following both children as they grow, and the device of cutting up the timeline and reassembling it in a collage of their lives, gave the book an epic feeling, each incident in their lives acting as another element in a rich soup of destiny as they circle towards each other.

I also enjoyed the slight magical element woven into the story with the addition of the Sea of Flames diamond. But is there any magic? Is the diamond cursed, or is it just a fantastic myth woven around the invaluable jewel? The Sea of Flames reminds me a little of Tolkein’s One Ring – a tempting, valuable artefact that plays upon people psychologically.

In the end, I felt that All the Light we Cannot See was a book about making the most of the time we have. Life is so unpredictable and we may not have as much of it left as we’d like to think, so it’s important to speak out now when we feel something should be said, to be kind now when we have the opportunity to be kind, and to keep our eyes and minds open and see the world around us while we’re still walking amongst it.