All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blueprint for writing fiction

All the Light We Cannot See is one of the best novels I have read – ever. I’m not alone with my enthusiasm and admiration. The book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the Australian International Book Award. It was also a finalist for many additional awards and received stunning reviews. It featured on many ‘best books of the year’ lists and will most likely top mine for 2017. Anthony Doerr has published one previous novel, a memoir, two short story collections, and numerous essays, mostly on aspects of science and place, and now I must read them all – not want to; must, for it is rare to ‘meet’ such an extraordinary author.

All the Light We Cannot See will not only grip you with its story and characters, will not only arrest you with the beauty of its prose, but is also a blueprint for writing fiction well. This novel demonstrates every single aspect of good writing. In particular, All the Light We Cannot See features:

  • a stunningly poetic and evocative beginning which hooks and directs the reader,
  • complex characters that will stay with you,
  • parallel plots which come together in a non-stereotypical way,
  • commonalities between the protagonists of each parallel plot,
  • a non-chronological structure with time shifts (and plot shifts) throughout,
  • strong transitions between parallel plots and time shifts,
  • a strong voice,
  • strong descriptions,
  • figurative language,
  • significant themes, and
  • a resonant title.

Below I will highlight only some of these strengths. To appreciate them all, you’ve got to read All the Light We Cannot See, and read it again, and again, and at each reading, you will savour every word, sentence, paragraph and chapter.

A stunningly poetic and evocative beginning which hooks and directs the reader:

‘At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over the rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.’

With this beginning, Doerr not only hooks the reader by exciting and dazzling her/him with the beauty of his prose, but also directs the reader by establishing the narrator, the voice, the point of view, a significant setting in the novel (even though he doesn’t name it here), the time in which All the Light We Cannot See is set (the presence of American artillery indicates it is World War II) as well as setting up the major theme of the novel.  

Parallel plots and commonalities between the protagonists of each plot

One of the plot streams of All the Light We Cannot See focuses on Werner, a German boy who is fascinated by physics, the other on Marie-Laure, a French girl who is enthralled by biology and natural history. In one of the time periods Anthony Doerr features, both are children, in the other they are teenagers. Both are exposed to, and involved in, the war, and their vulnerabilities are enhanced by both having suffered significant losses: Werner is an orphan and Marie-Laure has lost her mother and her eye-sight.

Throughout the novel, Doerr continues to deepen these commonalities between Werner and Marie-Laure, while handling the transitions between his parallel plots as well as the different time periods effortlessly.

Early on Doerr sets up each of his protagonists in sequential chapters:

‘In a corner of the city, inside a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel, on the sixth and highest floor, a sightless sixteen-year-old named Marie-Laure kneels over a low table covered entirely with a model. The model is a miniature of the city she kneels within, and contains scale replicas of the hundreds of houses and shops and hotels within its walls … Marie-Laure hesitates at the window in her stocking feet, her bedroom behind her, seashells arranged along the top of the armoire, pebbles along the baseboards. Her cane stands in the corner; her big Braille novel waits facedown on the bed. The drone of the airplanes grows.

And here is Doerr’s transition to Werner, the other protagonist, in the next chapter:

‘Five streets to the north, a white-haired eighteen-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes up to a faint staccato hum…’

What links the two protagonists immediately is a) their geographical vicinity at this time, b) their young age, and c) the event that is happening – through the sound both hear, even though they experience it differently.

In the following example Doerr once again links sound experiences of both protagonists, this time in the last sentences of sequential chapters:

‘All summer the smells of nettles and daisies and rainwater purl thought the gardens … And yet by early autumn … Marie-Laure … believes she can smell gasoline under the wind. As if a great river of machinery is steaming slowly, irrevocably, toward her.’

‘One night Werner hears [Hans, the oldest boy in the house] downstairs, shouting at Frau Elena. The front door slams; the children toss in their beds; Frau Elena paces the parlor, her slippers whispering left, whispering right. Coal cars grind past in the wet dark. Machinery hums in the distance: pistons throbbing, belts turning. Smoothly. Madly.’

 Figurative language:

The following is one example of Doerr using a simile and a metaphor, both stunningly evocative and original, in quick succession:

An omelette arrives… The eggs taste like clouds… Marie-Laure can hear a can [of peaches] opening, juice slopping into a bowl. Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.’


All the Light We Cannot See is the best novel I’ve read to illustrate all the techniques of good writing while also being a gripping and complex read with prose to savour.

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Whispering Gums Reply

Lovely post Annette. Love your analysis.

Willa Hogarth Reply

Great post Annette. makes me want to read it again!

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