There’s something about setting a novel during a period of war that makes the story feel so dreadful and hopeless, yet still incredibly engaging to read so that we can see if the characters introduced can make it through the conflict alive.
In Anthony Doerr’s multi-award winning book All the Light We Cannot See, these gut-wrenching feelings are cranked up a notch to make for one of the best told war novels in modern literature.
While Doerr first started receiving mass amounts of attention and praise for his gripping tale About Grace released back in 2004, it was the parallel story between a blind French girl and a genius German boy based in Nazi-occupied France that really skyrocketed him into stardom.
When he released All the Light We Cannot See in 2014, the book won the incredibly prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that very same year.
All the Light We Cannot See is a book that will keep you hooked from the moment you start reading, so if you’re on the hunt for a few historical novels that are just as good, here are a few recommendations from authors who specialize in the same genre including Marge Piercy and Gali Tsukiyama.
Themes In All The Light We Cannot See
While both Werner and Marie-Laure are barely even teenagers when we first start the book, because of the nature of the uncontrollable events surrounding them.
Both are forced to learn about sacrifice, and how much they are willing to give up in order to save their friends, their country, and themselves in a period of conflict and oppression
While this sacrifice can be more ethical and moral such as in the case of Werner who uses his talents to join the Hitler youth academy in order to be in a better position within society, or its physical sacrifice in the case of Marie-Laure participating in the French resistance, it is a theme that is expertly woven into the development of both characters.
Science And Technology
Anthony Doerr has commented on the title of the book in interviews, saying that it refers to the idea of humans “spending too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility”.
And while this can refer to the hopefulness characters can hold in times of conflict, it also feeds into the much wider theme of technology, and how feverous we were to utilize and learn more about it during the 1940s.
This obsession often becomes unethical, as we see when following Werner’s side of the story such as when he and his friends track and kill an “enemy” who turns out to be an innocent girl, becoming a wider theme that surrounds the plot throughout.
Many characters throughout the story will discuss if there really is any hope left, any chance of rebuilding after the war is over, seeing their friends again, or even surviving long enough to see the war end.
While hope builds and develops in Marie-Laure’s story as she encounters the fighters of the French Resistance, in contrast, we see Werner’s hope waver as he learns more about the regime he’s applied his talents to.
By telling a story paralleled between two characters on each side of the conflict who also happen to be young and innocent, Doerr manages to remind us that despite war and how much hatred and tension it can inspire between nations, we are all still people, with most of those participating not even wanting to fight in the first place.
Books Like All The Light We Cannot See
The Street Of A Thousand Blooms By Gail Tsukiyama
If you’re a fan of war novels and like getting alternate perspectives on a conflict that you wouldn’t normally see, or you’re just getting into the genre and want to experiment.
The Street of a Thousand Blooms is an incredibly well-written, heart-wrenching and engaging story following two orphaned brothers growing up in Japan in 1939.
While both brothers enjoy a peaceful life rooted in tradition and a fierce belief in their country and culture.
When Pearl Harbor is bombed by the Japanese Naval Air Service, the boys are thrust into a war they thought would never reach them, learning lessons of bravery, sacrifice, the ethics of war, and how people can come to willingly kill each other for a cause.
Tsukiyama tells a delicate and heartfelt story that takes the view of war from a more innocent perspective in much the same way that Doerr does, spanning over 30 years in its time frame and putting a much greater focus on the war in the Pacific.
- Very honest and faithful description of Japan before, during, and after the war
- Intense focus on family bonds and personal relationships during war-time
- Each character gets a good amount of development
- Perfect length
- Not many prose or memorable quotes
- A lot of over-explaining
Themes: Family bonds, hope, conflict, politics, culture
The Paris Library By Janet Skeslien Charles
Finding hope in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself is a theme that drives forward a lot of the story in All the Light We Cannot See, and a lot of this comes down to how well Anthony Doerr is able to describe the chaos and pain that surrounded ordinary citizens during the Second World War.
Janet Skeslien Charles takes a similar, and slightly less gruesome and gory approach to the same theme of hope in their New York Times Bestselling book The Paris Library, where she combines a dark and chaotic world with a story of generosity and kindness.
We follow Odile and other librarians working at the American Library in Paris during Nazi occupation who secretly deliver books to Jews around the city who were banned from visiting bookstores and libraries.
If you’re looking for a story that remains faithful to the period it’s based in that still depicts a glimmer of hope and compassion during one of the darkest periods of modern history, The Paris Library is a must-add to your reading list.
- Great details and descriptions of Nazi-occupied Paris
- Story effortlessly jumps between the 1940s and 1980s to give multiple perspectives
- Action keeps the story from ever becoming stale or one-note
- Many of the librarians don’t receive much development or backstories
Themes: Hope, prejudice, education, compassion
Gone To Soldiers By Marge Piercy
An author needs to be incredibly talented to tell a story from multiple different perspectives without the whole plot and meaning of the story getting muddled, and while this writing technique is a big draw to All the Light We Cannot See.
Another author who uses it perfectly is Marge Piercy in her bestseller and incredibly highly-acclaimed Gone to Soldiers.
This book tells the tale of World War 2 through the point of view of six women and four men.
All of whom are from completely different ways of life such as some being students being thrust into the war unexpectedly, or members of the French Jewish resistance who have been fighting tirelessly to liberate their country and their people.
Piercy creates a fascinating medley of viewpoints and opinions on the war in this book that really hasn’t been done this well by anyone else on such a grand scale.
Despite sounding like it should be messy and a little unorganized in practice, Marge Piercy effortlessly switches between each of these characters without disrupting the pacing or flow of the overall story, and even overlapping the stories at times to make for some really suspenseful and memorable moments.
- 10 protagonists are all unique and well developed
- Good historical accuracy that still remains faithful to the period
- Honest perspective on the horrors of war and the morals and ethics of conflict
- Not every character has a satisfying ending
- Most side characters don’t get too much development
Themes: Freedom, family, humanity, sacrifice
All the Light We Cannot See is undoubtedly one of the most captivating and unique war novels of recent memory, and while Anthony Doerr certainly excels at telling war stories that are full of suspense and emotion, because this genre is so big and popular.
You can be sure that there are authors with war stories that are just as unique such as these recommendations above that will have you thinking about their stories long after you close that final page.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is All The Light We Cannot See A TV Series?
A four-part series of All the Light We Cannot See is set to be released on Netflix in 2023.
Director Shawn Levy has promised to remain faithful to the source material, and many well-known actors have already been confirmed to feature in the series including Mark Ruffalo of Marvel fame, playing Daniel LeBlanc and Hugh Laurie playing Etienne LeBlanc.
Is All The Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr’s Best Book?
Many reviewers have argued that All the Light We Cannot See is Doerr’s best book thus far including Josh Cook of the Star Tribune and Yvonne Zipp of the Christian Science Monitor news organization.
- Humphrey Book Order - March 24, 2023
- Honor Harrington Book Series - March 24, 2023
- Fallen Book Series In Order - March 24, 2023