All the Light We Cannot See was already one of the editorial surprises of 2014: written by American author Anthony Doerr, the book sold over 15 million copies, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and entering many charts for the best books of the year. The story was inspired by the true events that occurred in Europe during World War II, and the author got inspiration from a couple of authentic experiences that pushed him to develop this plot. Let’s discover together the birth of this extraordinary novel, brought on screen by Netflix in the 2023 TV series.
All the Light We Cannot See: the true story & World War II
Anthony Doerr published his book All the Light We Cannot See in 2014, but as he explained in the interviews, it took ten years to write it: the setting is based on the true story of the Battle of Saint-Malo, which occurred in August 1944 during World War II. Doerr decided to develop the plot in that location after he visited the French city in 2005.
The spirit behind this decision is part of the book’s peculiarities: Anthony Doerr wanted to write a story about the cruel face of war from people’s point of view. We are often called to take sides in a battle between two parties, but when the bombings completely destroy your city, you need to condemn war as a whole. The consequences of a large-scale war are terrible for civilians, and All the Light We Cannot See wants to remind us that war is not acceptable from any point of view, and all the parties involved are supposed to do everything they can to avoid it. The presence of Werner as one of the book’s protagonists, a young Nazi soldier with a good heart, reflects the same perspective, a drift from the classic sides taken in front of World War II.
The Battle of Saint-Malo is the true story behind the setting of All the Light We Cannot See: it was a strategic port located in Northern France, occupied by Nazi Germany. After the Normandy landings, the Allies planned to capture the city with a fierce attack that began on August 6, 1944, driven by the US Army, with the support of Free French and British forces. The German army resisted for a long time: the battle in that area went on until September 2, and during those weeks, the city was repeatedly bombed by air raids launched by the Allies, resulting in the complete destruction of the port and extended casualties among civilians. Saint-malo was reconstructed after the war, and today, it’s a fascinating walled city on the English Channel. When Anthony Doerr visited it in 2005, he got caught by its atmosphere and decided to set his new novel in the World War battle that destroyed it years before.
Another element that made it into the book and was part of an authentic experience that inspired Anthony Doerr is technology and long-distance communication: both protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner, are actively involved in modern forms of communication, and the book’s author wanted to highlight how nowadays we got used to this technology, which belongs to the outstanding achievements we reached in the past century. As Doerr explained, he got this inspiration on a 2004 train ride, watching a passenger frustrated after his telephone call disconnected. All the Light We Cannot See intends to remind us of the extraordinary capabilities available in our society.
The characters of the story, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, Werner Pfennig, and the others, are not part of the true story and never existed in real life: they all belong to the fictional plot created by Anthony Doerr for the book All the Light We Cannot See. But the inspiration for the novel, its elements, and its spirit, they all come from what happened in World War II and the author’s personal experiences.