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Literature / All The Light We Cannot See

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"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
The Frenchman

All The Light We Cannot See is a 2014 historical novel written by Anthony Doerr, and winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story spans the years 1934 to 1944 in Germany and France. The two main characters are Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan. The story pivots in 1940 when Marie and her father flee Paris for the coastal town of St. Malo, while Werner is picked from his orphanage to attend a special Nazi boarding school for gifted students.

Eventually Marie and Werner's paths collide in occupied France, and just as the war has dramatically changed their lives, so will their meeting.

The novel has been adapted into a Netflix miniseries, which will air on November 2, 2023.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: For most of the novel, the narrative flashes between the Battle of Saint-Malo in 1944 and the events leading up to it.
  • Artifact of Attraction: The Sea of Flames, the legendary diamond that is said to give a person eternal life but attract misfortune and ill luck to everyone the person who holds the diamond cares about.
  • Bad Luck Charm: The Sea of Flames diamond, the novel's Mineral MacGuffin. Played with, in that while the diamond is an Immortality Inducer—if you have it, you will never die—the diamond brings bad luck on other people, people you are associated with. People you care about.
  • Big Bad: Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is a Nazi gemologist who is in pursuit of the Sea of Flames, a diamond that is rumored to give its owner immortality. He is a recurring character throughout the book and is responsible for much of the conflict in the third act. He harasses the blind Marie-Laure Leblanc in an attempt to find out whether she has the Sea of Flames. Later, during the Battle of Saint-Malo, von Rumpel breaks into Marie-Laure's house to find the Sea of Flames, forcing Marie-Laure to hide in the attic with it.
  • Body Double: A mineral example. There are three duplicate gems made of the Sea of Flames - indistinguishable to the untrained eye - made to keep the Germans from tracking down the real one. Even the people carrying the gems, other than the Master of the Louvre, don't know which one is real.
  • Contrived Coincidence: All the vast millions that make up the German Army on the Eastern Front, and Werner gets assigned to a unit that includes his old classmate, Volkheimer.
  • Cursed Item: The Sea of Flames diamond. It brings immortality to the person who possesses it, but brings bad luck and grief to the people around that person, the people that the possessor cares about.
  • Death by Childbirth: Marie's mother died giving birth to her—possibly due to the curse brought by the Sea of Flames.
  • Distant Finale: After 90% or so of the book is set in the 1934-44 time frame, a couple of chapters skip forward to 1974 and the last chapter finds Marie an old lady in 2014.
  • Einstein Hair: Werner is described as having white hair, which was the color of Einstein's hair. Werner is also a bright boy with an interest in science and a talent for radio technology.
  • How We Got Here: After starting out with an Allied bombing raid on St. Malo, the narrative jumps back ten years to 1934.
  • Immortality Inducer: The main reason why Reinhold wants the Sea of Flames so badly. The stories say that whoever holds the jewel will never die. By the time he finally gets to St. Malo, Reinhold is ridden with cancer with a life expectancy measured in weeks.
  • Immortality Seeker: Reinhold von Rumpel is in pursuit of the Sea of Flames because of its rumored ability to turn its owner immortal.
  • Informed Location: St. Malo. Although Anthony Doerr clearly researched the hell out of its geography, culturally it's indistinct from any other French town - there is no indication of the Breton culture, language, and cuisine that St. Malo wears proudly to this day.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Marie befriends her agoraphobic great-uncle, as well as adults who work at the museum
  • La Résistance: A rather light-hearted version to begin with, as the old ladies of St. Malo do things like leave dog poop out for Germans to step in. Later they get more serious, using Etienne's radio transmitter to report on shipping in and out of the town.
  • Mineral MacGuffin: The Sea of Flames, which drives so much of the plot, as Marie's father is tasked with smuggling the jewel out of Paris and Reinhold is determined to find it. In the end Werner throws it in the grotto and it is forgotten.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. Two of the men in Werner's unit in Russia are referred to as Neumann One and Neumann Two.
  • Orphanage of Love: Werner and Jutta grow up in one, headed by an Alsatian woman who loves and cares for the orphans in her charge.
  • Plucky Girl: It is remarked on that although Marie-Laure has been through a lot, she doesn't let it get her down for long
  • Present Tense Narrative: The entire novel is told in the present tense.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Marie's great-uncle Etienne, who takes her and her father in, is this. He came home from World War I suffering from severe hallucinations and a case of agoraphobia. Over two decades later, when Marie comes to live with him in 1940, Etienne still never leaves his house. He does not take it well when the Germans show up.
  • The Shut-In: Uncle Etienne does not leave his house for 24 years, 1920-1944. He finally goes out in desperation when Marie is delayed in her return from the bakery—she has encountered Reinhold at the beach.
  • The Siege: A truly pointless one, as the Germans in St. Malo hold out despite being cut off from the rest of the Wehrmacht by the D-Day landings. This leads to the destruction of the town.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The book mostly switches back and forth between the POV of Marie and Werner. Marie's father is occasionally a POV character as well, and later chapters introduce another POV character, Sgt. Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a German who is trying to find the Sea of Flames diamond.
  • A Taste of the Lash: The school that enrolls Werner after the authorities find out about his uncommon intelligence is as brutal and vicious as everything else in Nazi Germany. Werner's friend Frederick is singled out for being physically weak and beaten with a rubber hose.
  • The Unreveal: Marie never does find out what happened to her father after he was taken to Germany a prisoner.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Marie and Werner are both intelligent and curious for their age, but this trope applies especially to Werner's younger sister Jutta