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All the Light We Cannot See: A Story of Youth, Morals and War

“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

A line that summarises well the reality of Anthony Doerr’s characters in All the Light We Cannot See. As the darkness of World War II breaks over Europe, the story follows the young Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl from Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan who grows up in the rural surroundings of the German town Essen. The novel begins its narrative in 1934 Paris, presenting the life of the six-year-old Marie-Laure, who loves to explore the treasures of the Natural History Museum, where her father works. The museum hosts the world’s most precious gem, the Sea of Flame. Allegedly cursed, this stone’s mysteries influence the storyline especially towards the end of the book. But don’t expect me to tell you the details! As for Marie-Laure, she is forced to flee from her well-known surroundings in Paris as the German occupation draws shadows over France. She soon has to adapt to a new life in Saint-Malo, Brittany. 

Parallel to the sweet and colourful relationship that the author paints of little Marie-Laure and her loving father, the reader discovers the life of Werner, who lives in an orphanage with his sister Jutta. Horrified of experiencing the fate of every man in this rural environment – working his whole adult existence in the mines where his father died – Werner dedicates himself to science. After acquiring a radio and listening to a French science broadcast for kids, he soon becomes a tech-savvy young man. Yet, his skills catch the attention of the Nazis, which leads him to attend an elite school where he is trained first-hand under the Nazi ideology. With World War II creeping up from the shadows, the novel explores how the two young protagonists adapt to their new reality.

A Reading Experience

Throughout the book, the setting constantly switches between time periods and the main storylines. This is a feature that certainly distinguishes this book from others. I won’t lie, this can be slightly confusing at first, since we still have to get to know the characters and their environments. But after a while, it becomes easier to understand the leaps. Indeed, the story ends up taking place mainly in August 1944. And while Werner moves more frequently from location to location, Marie-Laure spends most of the story in Saint-Malo, providing a reassuring constant for readers as they return time and again to the little French town when reading one of Marie-Laure’s segments.

To illustrate, Doerr’s lyrical writing style offers a beautiful and detailed depiction of Saint-Malo, almost making it jump off the pages. The marine atmosphere is described through the senses of the blind Marie-Laure, an atmosphere of seagulls, waves crashing on rocks and walking on cobbled streets where we encounter the neighbourly inhabitants of the small coastal town.

“She walks. Now there are cold round pebbles beneath her feet. Now crackling weeds. Now something smoother: wet, unwrinkled sand. She bends and spreads her fingers. It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles. [...] She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction [...] She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets.”

As we follow the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, the evident question we ask as readers is “When will the two finally meet in the storyline?” Without revealing too much, I can confirm that yes, they will. After all, the foreshadowing of Werner’s connection to France through his orphanage’s French headmistress and his French radio show would otherwise be in vain. Yet, the interaction between the two characters takes place much later than expected and the moment is sweet but quite brief. While it leaves the reader with a wish for more shared story by the two, it is one more event shadowed by the dark circumstances of the period the novel is set in. It is an excellent example of how building moments of light in times of darkness is not impossible, but certainly very difficult.

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

A Netflix adaptation

All the Light We Cannot See proved to be impactful in the publishing world. Maintaining a long bestseller track and winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel has now also been adapted into a Netflix mini-series. So, after finishing the book, I of course had to check out the series too. 

Generally speaking, the TV adaptation is well-produced, starring talented actors (including names like Louis Hofmann, Hugh Laurie and Mark Ruffalo) with fitting scores by James Newton Howard. Regarding the cast, especially the decision to recruit an actor with visual impairment to play Marie-Laure can be applauded, landing on Aria Mia Loberti who delivered a great performance without prior acting experience. 

I don’t know about you, but whenever I watch a movie adaptation, I closely look at how well it sticks to the original story. Especially with books I really enjoyed, I would hate to see another Percy Jackson-like movie adaptation fiasco. Unfortunately, there are several deviations in the mini-series which made me enjoy the Netflix adaptation less than expected. 

First, related to the theme of innocence and childhood, Marie-Laure and Werner are 16 and 18 respectively when the main events happen in the novel, meaning that they were only about 12 and 14 when World War II broke out and children during the pre-war years. While the actors in the TV adaptation are no doubt talented, they look older than their book age, making it impossible for me to believe they could be in their teens. One of the strongest points that Doerr’s novel makes is precisely that it is young innocent children who are dragged against their will, or even knowledge, into an adult-made machinery of war and despair, even though childhood should be a phase without such worries. This argument is further strengthened by having both Marie-Laure and Werner escaping into fictional worlds, either through reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or listening to forbidden radio emissions. The fact that the protagonists' actors look older in the TV show hence attenuates Doerr’s point about childhood innocence in the show.

Moreover, the novel repeatedly points out Werner and Jutta’s white hair, yet in the adaptation they are blond. While this might sound like a petty thing to criticise, the white hair colour had a symbolic connotation in the book, at least in my understanding. First, Werner’s hair is so white that it does not even match the Nazi’s shades of blonde when examined upon entering the elite school. Werner’s physical appearance can be considered a prime example of the “ideal, Aryan man”, even though his character is way more nuanced and does not agree with the Nazi ideology. Second, the siblings’ white hair again seemed to me to be a reminder of innocence, of children getting caught up in a horrible war. So although I understand that not giving Werner and Jutta white hair in the adaptation was maybe due to production reasons, I would have loved to see their appearance be closer to the original.

In addition, there were several plot changes for which I could not always see the reasoning. The changes they made regarding the character of Étienne, Marie-Laure’s uncle, could be cited here. I also would have loved to see Werner’s interactions with his friend Frederick, who was completely absent from the series, although their friendship greatly influenced Werner’s character in the book. Of course, TV producers always have to make compromises when adapting a written piece of over 500 pages, so it was bound to happen. I will not give you more concrete examples to avoid spoilers, but if you have read the book you will know the precisely what I mean. 

Finally, the strongest deviance I experienced and which left me confused and disappointed was that the series does not make justice to the complexities of Werner’s character. His moral reflections impact his actions, especially during his time in the Nazi school and army. In the series, where this period is not portrayed in depth, Werner’s position towards the Nazi ideology seems quite clear-cut, representing him as someone resisting the regime, whereas in the book, it was not always clear whether he agreed with the Nazi teachings or just pretended to. The novel paints a more nuanced picture which probably better reflects the reality of a young boy who grew up in the Nazi period, where completely escaping the ever-present propaganda must have been very difficult. 

“‘Is it right,’ Jutta says, ‘to do something only because everyone else is doing it?’ Doubts: slipping in like eels. Werner shoves them back. Jutta is barely twelve years old, still a child.” 

To sum up, the Netflix series can certainly be a nice watch, but if you have read the book beforehand, you should be aware of certain changes which unfortunately do not fully capture the magic and nuances of Doerr’s novel.

A Conclusion

All the Light We Cannot See is definitely a story I will keep thinking about in the future. Maybe you have read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - if not, I highly highly recommend reading that one! It’s probably the best historical fiction novel I have read so far on World War II. Besides the shared war setting, All the Light We Cannot See picks up on similar themes: childhood, questions of morality and innocence, the power of loving relationships and dealing with loss. Does this sound like something you like to read? Then definitely give this book a try! Especially when today’s news is again filled by grim reports of war and misery, picking up a book which dedicates itself to finding the smallest sparks of light in the darkness could help lift your spirits.


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