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2015 Bookshelf: All The Light We Cannot See

Meg Chaney

I finished this book at the end of January. For days I was buried in the world of France/Germany during WWII. It was entirely  fascinating. I've never read a story, both from the French point of view and from the German. The novel revolved around two characters. Maire-Laure is a blind teenager who grew up in Paris, but is now sequestered in Saint-Malo during the bombings. Werner is a German teenager who was picked up by the Hitler-Youth. Through flashbacks, we watch both characters grow older, until their paths collide in Saint-Malo, during the flattening bombings of the city in 1944.  

The writing style is epic, eloquent, enticing all the senses. The war through the eyes of a blind girl is fascinating, both full of color and absent of color. Though she can't see, she visualizes so much in her brain. 

Werner is faced with many decisions from an early age. Decisions that take him down a dark path. Watching him go through training was fascinating for me as a reader. There are many things about the Hitler youth that I really knew nothing about. And honestly, I felt sorry for Werner. That, also, is the sign of a very talented writer. One who can make you feel sorry for even a Nazi! So much of his life was forced, even brainwashed from an early age. He was an orphan, with no prospects and a deep love of science and learning. That was largely what brought him to this place. But even he will have to make some deicisons along the way. Decisions about following his leaders, or follow what he knows to be right. 

Mare-Laure will also have to make some decisions. Decisions on who she will help, and how she will react to this war and everything happening because of it. She will face some terrifying moments, moments that will forever change her. 

Warnings: This story is about a war, so there are definitely some scenes that are hard to stomach.   Werner watches his comrades get horribly mistreated during their training days, and sees firsthand the brutality of his "cause" when they go into houses and kill everyone in sight, before asking any questions. These scenes are hard to read, but definitely show the reality of war.  The story focuses a lot on the innocence of Maire-Laure and Werner, so there is little profanity or sexual language. At one point, Werner does have some co-workers that are horribly crass in their speech. Also, some German girls are horribly mistreated by some men near the end of the story (which shows that the brutality was not limited to the Nazis). 

Favorite Quotes: Light and music both play such integral roles in the novel. They are almost characters that stand on their own. I'd love to share just a few of my favorite quotes with you. These quotes may giveaway some plot lines in the story, so spoiler alert! But they're so beautiful, I wanted to share: 

Although Maire-Laure's world is completely dark, at the beginning of the novel she sees all the world around her in vibrant colors. This changes as the novel progresses, WWII becomes a harsh reality to the French, and Maire-Laure loses much of what she loved. Still, there are moments of beauty, such as the moment she danced with her great-uncle: 

He spins her; her fingers flicker through the air. In the candlelight, she looks of another world, her face all freckles, and in the center of the freckles those tow eyes hang unmoving like the egg cases of spiders. They do not track him, but they do not unnerve him, either; they seem almost to see into a separate, deeper place, a world that consists only of music.
— p.332-333

Life is very hard and confusing for Maire-Laure. Where once her world was full of color and music, now, it's mostly gray. Gray, expect for her Great-Uncle Etienne, and his desire to share the truth, even though owning a radio is against the law. His contraband radio is used to broadcast news, and to share an occasional beautiful song as encouragement to other Allies:

Now her world has turned gray. Gray faces and gray quiet and a gray nervous terror hanging over the queue at the bakery and the only color in the world briefly kindled when Etienne climbs the stairs to the attic, knees cracking, to read one more string of numbers into the ether, to send another of Madame Ruelle’s messages, to play a song. That little attic bursting with magenta and aquamarine and gold for five minutes, and then the radio switches off, and the gray rushes back in, and her uncle stumps back down the steps.
— p.353

Werner fights between a life lived in the mines, deep in the dark, without light, and a life above the surface, serving in the Nazi Regime. By picking the Nazi life, he believes he's making the right decision. A life filled with science and radios and music and everything he loves. But, near the end of the novel, He comes to a different decision. After nearly being buried alive, he comes to the surface, and walks out onto the streets of Saint-Malo. 

What light shines at night! He never knew. Day will blind him
— p.460

Perhaps he's finally seeing light for what it actually is. The Nazi's gave him a sense of hope, of purpose, but true light might be an entirely different thing. After coming out into the open, Werner is experiencing light for the first time in a long time. 

Werner and Marie-Laure have to ultimately both make some decisions about what  "light" is.  After finding Marie-Laure, Werner troubles over some thoughts. It's poetic, and heartbreaking:

Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? Until the armies finish marching back and forth above their heads, until all the have to do is push open the door and shift some stones aside and the house has become a ruin beside the sea? Until he can hold her fingers in his palms and lead her out into the sunshine? He would walk anywhere to make it happen, bear anything; in a year or three or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they meant now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant and order a simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share
— p.473


Werner debates living in hiding, in darkness with a blind girl who understands more about "light" than he really does. The ultimate decision is something you will have to read about for yourself. But I do hope you pick up this book and read some different perspectives of WWII. By the end of this novel, I was sad to see it go. The characters were so real to me, that I had to remind myself that they were truly only fiction, they didn't exist. It was a powerful story and a great look at history through two unlikely characters.