All the Light We Cannot See

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All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr novel).jpg
AuthorAnthony Doerr
CountryUnited States
Published2014 (Scribner)
Media typePrint (hardback and softback)
Pages544 (hardback); 531 (softback)

All the Light We Cannot See is a war novel written by American author Anthony Doerr, published by Scribner on May 6, 2014. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Set in occupied France during World War II, the novel centers on a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths eventually cross.


In 1934, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a six year old blind girl living in Paris with her father, the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She hears stories of the purported Sea of Flames hidden within the museum, which is said to grant immortality at the cost of endless misfortune to those around the owner. Allegedly, the only way to end the curse is to return the stone to the ocean, its rightful owner. In Germany, 8-year-old Werner Pfennig is an orphan in the coal-mining town of Zollverein. Werner is exceptionally bright and has a natural skill for repairing radios and after he finds a broken one with his sister Jutta, he fixes it and he uses it to hear science and music programs transmitted across Europe.

When Germany invades France in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father flee to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to take refuge with her great-uncle Etienne, a recluse and shellshocked veteran of the Great War who spent his time broadcasting old records of his dead brother across Europe. Unknown to Marie-Laure, her father had been entrusted by the museum with either the Sea of Flames or one of three exact copies, made to protect the original gem. Months later, while building a model town of Saint-Malo for Marie-Laure, Marie-Laure's father is arrested. He is not heard from again, leaving Marie-Laure alone with Etienne and Madame Manec, Etienne's longtime maid and housekeeper. Meanwhile, a Nazi gemologist, Reinhold von Rumpel, begins to search for the Sea of Flames, seeking its purported immortality, to save himself from dying an untimely death due to his spreading cancer.

Werner's skill earns him a place at the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, a boarding school teaching Nazi values. Werner is obedient and highly efficient in technical work. His age is wrongly increased in the papers to put him out of school and is soon placed in the Wehrmacht,client tracking illegal enemy signals alongside Volkheimer, a large yet gentle soldier from Schulpforta. Werner becomes increasingly disillusioned with his position, especially after a young girl is killed by his group after incorrectly tracing a signal.

Meanwhile, Madame Manec participates in the Resistance along with other local women. These activities have some success, but Madame Manec becomes ill and dies. Marie-Laure and Etienne continue her efforts, transmitting secret messages alongside piano recordings and important Morse code information. Etienne's signal is traced, and Werner's group is told to track the broadcast. Werner finds the source of the signal, but the piano recording Clair de lune, which Etienne plays after one of his broadcasts, makes him recognize it as the same music he had heard as a child after those enthralling science programmes, and does not disclose its location.

As the Allied forces lay siege to Saint-Malo, Werner is trapped beneath a pile of rubble, where he stays alive without food or water for days just by listening to Marie-Laure's radio broadcasts in which she reads from her Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which was in Braille. At around the same time, Marie-Laure opens the model of Etienne's house and finds the diamond.

After being trapped for several days, Werner escapes and heads for Etienne's house, in pursuit of Marie-Laure as well as "the Frenchman” whose broadcasts had filled his bleak childhood with hope. There he finds von Rumpel in pursuit of the jewel. After a brief standoff, he kills von Rumpel and meets Marie-Laure, who had hidden in the attic to escape Rumpel and protect the stone. Although only together for a short time, they form a strong bond, Werner finding himself falling in love with her. As they flee from Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure places the Sea of Flames inside a gated grotto, the key to which was handed to her by the crazy Hubert Bazin, flooded with seawater from the tide, returning it to the ocean. She gives the key to Werner, who sends her away into safety but is captured himself and sent to an American disarmament center where he becomes gravely ill. Just as he begins to recover, he accidentally steps on a German landmine at night in a fit of delirium and is immediately killed.

Thirty years later, Volkheimer finds Jutta and gives her Werner's belongings at the time of his death, including the model house which contained the Sea of Flames and tells her that possibly Werner had been in love. Jutta travels to France with her son Max, where she meets Marie-Laure in Paris, now working as a marine biologist at the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure opens the model and finds the key to the grotto. The story ends in 2014 with Marie-Laure, now 86 years old, walking with her grandson, Michel in the streets of Paris where she grew up.


  • Marie-Laure LeBlanc – A blind French girl; the main character
  • Werner Pfennig – A German orphan boy, very scientifically gifted; the second main character
  • Daniel LeBlanc – Marie-Laure's father and the head locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris
  • Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel – a sergeant major and gemologist in the German army
  • Etienne LeBlanc – Marie-Laure's great-uncle and a resident of Saint-Malo
  • Madame Manec – Etienne's longtime maid and housekeeper
  • Jutta Pfennig – Werner's sister
  • Frau Elena – caretaker of Werner and Jutta in the orphanage
  • Hauptmann – Werner's professor at Schulpforta
  • Frederick – Werner's friend; very strong-willed
  • Frank Volkheimer – Werner's friend; a sergeant in the German army


All the Light We Cannot See was received mostly positively by critics. William T. Vollmann, writing for The New York Times Book Review, praised the novel's writing style and the character development of Marie-Laure, whom he calls "an exquisitely realized creation", but he criticized stereotyping of Nazism, particularly the perceived one-dimensionality of Frederick and von Rumpel.[1] Carmen Callil, by contrast, wrote that "[t]he chapters on Werner's schooling ... are the best in the book" in a review for The Guardian. Although applauding Doerr's attention to detail, she considers the novel too long and the dialogue too American.[2]

In a review in The Boston Globe, John Freeman praises Doerr's work, calling his language "fresh" and noting how "he allows simple details to say much".[3] Amanda Vaill, in a Washington Post review, admires how the book is "[e]nthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears, [but] it is completely unsentimental." She writes, "Every piece of backstory reveals information that charges the emerging narrative with significance, until at last the puzzle-box of the plot slides open to reveal the treasure hidden inside."[4]

In a critical review, the World Socialist Web Site's Leah Jeresova praises Doerr's "attention to the theme of human empathy" but says a "major defect of the novel is Doerr’s inability to analyze the roots of the catastrophe of the Second World War."[5]

The novel spent 130 consecutive weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction.[6] The New York Times also named it one of its 10 best books of the year.[7] The novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award.[8] Sales tripled the week after it lost to Redeployment by Phil Klay.[9]

The novel won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction[10] and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.[11][12]

The novel was runner-up for the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction[13] and won the 2015 Ohioana Library Association Book Award for Fiction.[14]


  1. ^ Vollmann, William T. (May 8, 2014). "Darkness Visible". The New York Times Book Review. Archived from the original on March 13, 2018. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  2. ^ Callil, Carmen (May 17, 2014). "All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr review – a story of morality, science and Nazi occupation". The Guardian. Archived from the original on April 22, 2015. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  3. ^ Freeman, John (May 3, 2014). "'All the Light We Cannot See' by Anthony Doerr". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 28, 2017. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  4. ^ Vaill, Amanda (May 5, 2014). "'All the Light We Cannot See,' by Anthony Doerr". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on December 21, 2016. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  5. ^ Jeresova, Leah. "Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See": All the history the novelist cannot see". Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  6. ^ "Hardcover Fiction Books - Best Sellers - November 27, 2016 - The New York Times". Archived from the original on May 25, 2018. Retrieved 2018-05-24.
  7. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2014". The New York Times. December 4, 2014. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on September 23, 2015. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
  8. ^ Alex Shephard (October 15, 2014). "National Book Awards shortlists announced". Melville House Publishing. Archived from the original on October 20, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2014.
  9. ^ Alter, Alexandra (December 26, 2014). "Anthony's Doerr's 'All the Light We Cannot See' Hits It Big". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on October 1, 2015. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
  10. ^ Flood, Alison (April 21, 2015). "Pulitzer prize for fiction goes to All the Light We Cannot See". The Guardian. Guardian News & Media. Archived from the original on April 22, 2015. Retrieved April 21, 2015.
  11. ^ "Anthony Doerr wins Carnegie Medal for fiction". Midcontinent Communications. Associated Press. June 28, 2015. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved June 28, 2015.
  12. ^ "'All the Light We Cannot See,' 'Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption' win 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction | News and Press Center". July 1, 2015. Archived from the original on October 6, 2015. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
  13. ^ D. Verne Morland. "Dayton Literary Peace Prize – Anthony Doerr, 2015 Fiction Runner-Up". Archived from the original on 2015-12-08.
  14. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-05. Retrieved 2015-12-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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