All The Light We Cannot See: Book Review
Imagine being a blind sixteen year old girl living alone with your reclusive aged great-uncle in a narrow derelict and silent house in Saint Malo during the German occupation of the greater Saint Malo area and then the final assault and eventual liberation by the British and Allied Forces. This is the situation Marie-Laure the brave Parisian teenager finds herself in.
Anthony Doerr’s New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See is an epic bittersweet and moving novel that takes us on the journey experienced by sightless Marie-Laure and orphan Werner Pfennig from the year 1934 when war was only a rumour, through to when the American army headed west, from the Normandy Landings of D-Day to Brittany, to dislodge the Germans and to the lives of our characters in 2014.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History and once her father is entrusted with a precious secret they seek refuge in her great-uncle Etienne’s large home in Saint Malo which seems a wise choice until the town becomes part of the heavily fortified Atlantic Wall. Danger is around every corner with neighbours betraying one another and daily life a tremendous struggle. Bravery is a dangerous thing, especially when your world is one of darkness and you cannot tell who to trust.
Werner Pfennig grew up only 300 miles northwest of Paris, but in reality, a world away in Essen, Germany. Werner with his exceptional talent with wireless radios inevitably brings him to the notice of the Hilter Youth where he rides the tidal wave of indoctrination and training to become a valued Nazi technician. Whilst the fororcious destruction of the army he is vital part of surrounds him, Werner still manages to maintain a gentleness, even as his path takes him to the stronghold of Saint Malo.
These two characters both noble in their own ways, illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Daily Mail
The futile nature of war and the inhumanity shown are strong messages I took from this book. Anthony Doerr is poetical in his descriptions allowing with less words, the space for thinking and feeling. Your heart and emotions will swell and fall. This well trod era of history has been presented in a hauntingly beautiful way and this book will stay with me for many years. I highly recommend it for a number of reasons; a greater understanding of the build up to World War II; an appreciation of the courage of the French resistance and also a glimpse into life for the sightless and the determination they display in attempting daily activities. This is a nail biting, page turning story that transports you to Essen, Paris, Saint Malo and the greater France during the momenteous days of World War II.
Because of my many visits to Saint Malo I easily transposed myself into locations in the novel and even imagined myself talking to Madame Ruelle at her bakery and walking with bare feet sniffing the salty air along the base of the ramparts into the safe kennel amongest the seasnails, weeds and shells. The personalities in the book felt so real and whilst this little promontory has known sieges for nearly three thousand years I felt true sadness reading about the destruction that it endured during this dramatic time so close to my own.
When you wander the streets of this town it is hard to believe that his jewel located on the English Channel in northeast Brittany is not the original. What we see today is actually a reconstructed town that was planned to be as close to the original as was possible. The hospital and prison were relocated outside the walls and only a few half-timbered houses of the 1600s now remain. The mansions were rebuilt close to the originals however, the ramparts, the castle and the cathedrale were replicated exactly. The reconstruction of the spire in 1971 marked the end of the work involved in rebuilding the town and the restored Cathedrale was inaugurated the following year.
Sadly the level of destruction need not have been so great; if only the Nazis had surrendered or the Americans had tempered their bombing. As circumstances have it, Hitler commanded his army to fight to the end; the Americans believed there were thousands of Nazis defending the town; and, the Americans didn’t realize that hundreds of residents had been unable to evacuate because the Nazis had locked the city gates to keep them in.
Not realizing the true situation, the town was set ablaze so what was not already demolished, burnt in the fires. It is amazing that almost a million tons of rubble had to be cleared after the onslaught. This rubble was used to painstakingly rebuild much of the town.
Amongest the gardens and town squares of the walled city you will find monuments to the men and woman of the resistance who tried to protect the town and a tribute to the lost from the concentration camps. This town has risen again from the rubble, but there are reminders everywhere of what it and its occupants have been through. Near La place Jean de Chatillon, you will find a fenced monument inaugurated on June 1957 paying tribute to the people of Saint Malo who collectively supported its mayor, Guy La Chambre, to rebuild the town that was over 80% destroyed.
Saint Malo is extremely beautiful to visit in the very early morning before crowds fill the cobblestone narrow paths and cafes. We love the quiet still time of the very early morning after arriving at sunrise on an overnight Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth, England.
La rue Chateaubriand is one of the few streets to have retained the appearance of Saint Malo before the war. It has some of the oldest houses, some dating from 1670 and 1718. Hotel Chateaubriand is actually a number of houses joined together and is a charming place to stay, located close to the Town Hall, cafes and the beach. Book early in summer as the town is very popular with local and overseas tourists. The town can be circumnavigated walking along the top of the rampart walls and the view is spectacular over the ocean, beaches and of course down into the town. We love walking the walls, especially in winter, but you should allow for the very chilly winds that may buffer you as you walk atop the walls.
More reviews of All The Light We Cannot See:
‘Far more than a conventional war story, it’s a tightly focused epic revoling around two unusal main characters…’ clifford Beal, Daily Mail
‘A tender exploration of this world’s paradoxes; the beauty of the laws of nature and the terrible ends to which war subverts them; the fragility and the resilence of the human heart; the immutability of a moment and the healing power of time … A compelling and uplifting novel’ M L Stedman, Author
A fabulous book and a wonderful town to visit in Brittany… Annette xx
Our ‘Tips on a Stressless Brittany Ferry crossing’ article is full of helpful ideas – click here
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