I Read Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’

steve cuocci
5 min readApr 16, 2024

I got this book as a gift. We knew I loved (loved) Cloud Cuckoo Land and my amount of gushing for the writing was enough that it only made sense to own, to read this Pulitzer Prize winning novel. For clarity: I am a pretentious person. When something gets high praise, high ratings, critical acclaim, it somehow diminishes the value of the work in my eyes. I am so devoutly contrarian that I will often find masterpieces and treat them as pulp. Something’s wrong with me, man. I get it. But despite all of that, somehow, books have avoided that plague by all costs. I mean, even a book like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which garnered endless love and praise and joy from both critics and everyday people alike, I read and said, “Man. That was actually really good.” This book is absolutely no different. This book received the highest praise, the highest award a piece of fiction could get, and after reading it, I’m saying: Yup. It really is that good. This is an incredible work.

Anthony Doerr is a marvelous storyteller, and at his core, it seems that he knows exactly the stories we wish to hear. Save the brilliant writing, Doerr manages to focus upon those scenarios, those quiet moments, those centers of humanity which we gaze into with curiosity. We have already heard the biggest of The Big Picture. We want to know who was there and what they’ve said, right or wrong, factual or fantasy. We want a voice from the nucleus of it. And he finds it.

Some of the best writing of this book comes in the small cracks within the narrative. It sits on the window sills of the buildings that his characters walk beside, it comes on the tables that his characters ignore. Doerr has the ability to stop the spinning world of his book and paint a portrait of an entire life between one monumental line and the next. He examines the cross thought his characters may have as they disengage from the chaos around them. He captures distraction and daydream more vividly than any author I’ve read.

There is a gem (literally; a crystal, a diamond, a sapphire) at the center of this story, sort of The One Ring that spawned and lends gravity to all of Tolkein’s world. It’s not the star, but it is the core, the reason, the catalyst. In both, they act as devils, pure talismans of evil that grant a certain serenity of power and infinity to its carrier, yet inexplicable misfortune and malady to those who orbit closely around its prime. The way Doerr doles out the events surrounding the gem do a wonderful job of highlighting its importance, but also cascading a series of events and effects from it without constantly drawing attention to The Whys. Illness and death are silently attributed to the black hole that this relic produces. The diagrams are never drawn, a wink at the camera nor a footnote is ever carved, but as I read, I often returned to the thought of its area of effect. I thought a lot about the Magic at play here, the tacit mysticism of myth.

Stylistically, I love that each chapter is short. I believe a dozen pages at most. We bounce from character to character, from country to country in mere heartbeats. No amount of detail is sacrificed and no level of commitment is abbreviated. Typically, when a book is doing this correctly, the little chapters feel like candies, like eating from a bag of chips you just can’t put down. They’re brief and light and fun and while each individual piece is kind of nothing, the experience as a whole is sort of the idea. That is very much not the case of this work. Doerr’s writing takes big swings, even in little bites. All the Light We Cannot See is a pure gestalt, each brick important, each stroke with fine detail and meticulous crafting. There’s a lot of heartbreak in a sentence. There’s a lot of desolation, loneliness, love. Care. The microscopic beauty throughout this book feels parallel to the same kind of adoration that one can find of their lover. The way their fingernails grow just so, the way that they rest their fingers on their knee, the way they bounce their ankle. Everything small appears large here, appears important.

There’s a point late in the book that smacks the thick glass of the narrative. About 12 pages that halt all story, all character, and remind the reader of how bleak war is, has been, will be. We’ve focused for so long on characters, on events, on suspense, all the while knowing War was around us. Well, in these 12 pages, War closes its mouth with us inside, and we feel the vice of its teeth, the suppression of its tongue, the gulping of its throat, the silence of our ingestion. It’s a part of the story that turns a corridor into an exit, as all things close, all lights start to shift tones. It’s not that this book ever allows us to forget that this takes place in the heart of the second world war. But it’s in these dozen pages that we are reminded of what everyone else has said about the conflict. We smell the ravenous wolves that people became. We feel the dirt rammed into our pores, the disease curdling layers of our skin and below. We see how quickly Death makes its arrangements and carries them out. We see what man becomes. Surrounded by a story of hope and action and innocence, these pages stood so starkly out from the novel that I felt the weight of it more than I had in hundreds of pages prior. It felt like those moments where Wile E. Coyote looks down as he stands between the hard ground of two mesas and realizes that there’s nothing but air and gravity between himself and the earth, a gulp of breath before the fall.

We get many answers as the book begins to heave towards the future in larger and larger strides. We learn how things aged, how people prospered, how places healed. We learn how memories calcified and petrified and disappeared and clung like lichen. We find the people we read about in their state of definition and follow through. There’s a smaller tone to these stories, these conclusionary missives. Everything feels faded out, like mere moments in time. As bold and really as sharp as the events are, they do feel somewhat glossed over. As real as they are, there’s a sense of just how temporal the nature of our lives are. An exhaustion sort of lies over it all, like the blood has settled and life is just sort of happening with a pale urgency to live unaffected by the toll the war has had on them all. It felt right. It felt handled with etiquette. This was an ending of a book that really didn’t try to leave you breathless or hanging or concluded. Above all, it felt a very real finality.

Yet another book that I can endlessly recommend. One of the best books with some of the best moments and characters that I’ve had the joy of reading through. This is an example of a book that no matter how many great things you’ve heard about it, I can almost guarantee each of those things is probably right. Adore this book. So far, in my eyes, Doerr can do no wrong.