All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

When I travel, I gravitate to the small, forgotten places—the crumbling ruins rather than the soaring cathedrals; villages with their backs turned to the road instead of bustling capital cities. I wonder at the secrets that lie within the stillness, the stories that whisper in the broken stone or behind shuttered windows.

 

I’d not read Anthony Doerr before All The Light We Cannot See, but as I lost myself in the delicate suite tendresse of this novel, I felt I’d found a kindred spirit. From the grandeur of European cities and the drama of war, he uncovers the gems hidden in quiet, forgotten lives.

 

The trope of two star-crossed young protagonists—(a blind French girl, an orphaned German boy) and the hints of fable woven through the characters’ childhoods, set against the dramatic backdrop of opposing countries on the brink of a war—would seem to tread familiar ground.

 

But nothing in this shimmering tapestry of a novel is like anything I’ve read before.

 

The story opens in Saint-Malo on France’s Breton coast—an ancient walled city where the high tides swamp medieval cellars. In August 1944, the town is occupied by German forces and shattered by Allied bombing. Alone in her home, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc catches one of the hundreds of leaflets falling from the sky. It smells of new ink, but no one is around to tell her what it says.

 

Just a few streets away, Werner Pfenning, a young German soldier, is slowly suffocating in the foundation of a bombed hotel, trying to raise a signal on his radio. Finding voices in the still and empty dark has been his gift since he was a child, trapped in an orphanage in a German coal mining town. At last, he hears the voice of a girl—Marie-Laure—reading passages from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

How these two lives come together is the simple, melodic premise of this symphonic novel. Layered into the composition are wonders of science, literature, and music, the horrors of war, poverty, and occupation, and the legend of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames.

 

The light in the novel’s title takes many metaphorical forms. It is the light Marie-Laure’s father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, shines on the world for his blind daughter. He creates intricate models of their Paris and Saint-Malo neighborhoods so that Marie-Laure can memorize her world with her fingers and not fear what her eyes cannot see. It is the light her father offers in the lies he writes after he is taken prisoner. It is the light of the people left behind who love and care for a brave, perceptive child. It is the light of the Resistance, a flame of hope and defiance.

 

The light in Werner’s life is much dimmer. His scientific genius is recognized and he is taken from the orphanage—saved from certain death in the coal mines—and sent to a Hitler Youth academy, where hope is extinguished by duty. He becomes a radio operator in service of the Führer, and certain death awaits him in Leningrad or Poland or Berlin. Science, math, and distant voices transmitting in the dark are his only lights.

 

The blue flame pulsing from a priceless diamond with a cruel past is another kind of light—one followed by sinister characters who use the trappings of power during the chaos of war to pursue their obsessions to the most bitter ends.

 

Anthony Doerr’s prose is lovely. It pirouettes on the fine line between lush and lyrical, flirting with magical realism, but never leaving solid ground. The imagination it takes to bring a reader into the head of a blind child learning to navigate her world so that we see, feel, smell, and hear as she does is breathtaking. The ability to evoke empathy without tumbling into sentimentality is admirable. The weaving together of so many scientific and historical details so that the reader is spellbound instead of belabored is nothing short of brilliant.

 

Structurally, All The Light We Cannot See is bold, its suspense masterful, its prose confident and beautiful. But it is the fragility and strength of Anthony Doerr’s characters that linger longest after the novel’s final pages. Highly recommended; one of this year’s best.

 

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A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It’s a story I’ve carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner’s Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region’s history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.

 

But I’m wasn’t looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It’s all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn’t need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn’t disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I’ve read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr’s novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan’s won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

IMG_2455
Autumn light shines on a new story. © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I’d been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I’d opened a yawning chasm of “Now what do I do?” My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I’ve learned anything along this writer’s journey, it’s to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn’t new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I’d let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Time isn’t circular,’ she said to Dr. Kellet. ‘It’s like a … palimpsest.’
‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That sounds vexing.’
‘And memories are sometimes in the future.’

A preternaturally wise ten-year-old Ursula Todd offers us this succinct thematic summation of Life After Life near the book’s end, after she has lived and died many times.

A palimpsest is also the perfect metaphor for Kate Atkinson’s luminous novel. Its multiple layers of theme and plot pile up like shadows, visible through the translucent onion-skin of imagination. It is a novel of faerie tales—the fox, the wolf, and little girls snatched while walking through the woods. It is about the brutal realities of war—Atkinson brilliantly captures the interminable months of the Blitz, where nightly bombings are endured with aplomb and scooping up bucketsful of your neighbor’s flesh is just what you do to get on to the next day. It is a story of a family—a familiar motif in Atkinson’s literary worlds—with a set of messy, vexing, endearing characters whose personalities remain constant throughout the crazy quilt of this narrative, even if their outcomes change, depending upon the version of life they are living.

Ursula Todd is born at Fox Corner on a snowy night in February 1910, the third child of an upper-middle class family ensconced in the genteel English countryside. She dies at birth. She lives, just barely. She drowns as a toddler. She is rescued at the last minute, clutched by the hand of an amateur painter before the current sweeps her out to sea. She is taken by the Spanish flu just days after Armistice. She is raped on her sixteenth birthday and dies after a botched abortion. She is kissed tenderly by the neighbor boy, a Sweet Sixteen gift beyond her wildest hope. She marries an English psychopath who murders her. She marries a German intellectual. She can never have children. She has a little girl named Frieda who becomes the pet of Eva Braun. She is trapped in Germany during the war and dies from her countrymen’s bombs. She survives the terror during and the deprivation after World War II in London, rising through the ranks of British civil service to become a model for working women in the 1960’s. She assassinates Hitler in 1930, becoming a martyr for peace and the prevention of a Holocaust that no one could believe possible in the desperate years after the Great War.

The first snippets of life and death and life again are jarring. Atkinson opens the door wider each time until you are inside the maze and there is no turning back. But she doesn’t abandon you to aimless wandering. Through the constancy of the characters, you follow the crumbs of her tense and nimble plotting. Her writing, as always, is sheer pleasure to read, with lovely and supple language. She balances the queer and violent with humor and tenderness, leaving her lipstick on the glass with those particular Atkinson markers: affection for children, dogs, and an essential Britishness that mixes poignancy with a wry self-regard.

Atkinson leaves room for the reader and the characters to approach reality on their own terms. Ursula shifts with each life, responding to a sense that if she just did this, something fundamental will change. Is she aware that she is reliving her life? Are her choices conscious, or is it an awareness buried deep inside her, a sixth sense that emerges as déjà vu? You’ve simply got to read this for yourself for the answers. But don’t expect any.

The more I think about this book—several days now after reluctantly closing the back cover—the more in awe I am of one of my favorite authors. Kate Atkinson has crafted a lyrical rendering of metaphysics and a brave manipulation of narrative structure that is at heart a wonderful story—albeit with layers as delicate and impermanent as a croissant’s and as delicious to consume. I’m still licking my fingers. Brava.

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Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible – Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora’s behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and in ShadowIn Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent five weeks with In Sunlight and In Shadow. Five monogamous weeks, which is a committed literary relationship for this fast-in, fast-out reader. Yes, life circumstances wore me out and distracted me, so that some days the amount of pages read would be imperceptible as measured on a standard ruler, but never once did I contemplate setting Helprin aside for a less complicated time or supplementing my evening reading with a less demanding literary companion.

This lush, resplendent novel enthralled me. Each and every one of its 705 pages.

The story itself is quite simple. In fact, the old-fashioned romance and adventure style makes this a curl-up-on-the-sofa read. But the beauty of Helprin’s prose, its rococo grandeur and meandering lyricism, make it worthy of lingering. Take your time to reread certain passages and be astonished anew by Helprin’s particular magic.

Harry Copeland is in his early 30s and recently returned to Manhattan from the European Theatre of WWII. Harry is alone in the world, an only child, his parents deceased, and he is taking his time to heal from the emotional wounds and physical trauma sustained as a special ops paratrooper. What can’t wait, however, is the luxury leather goods business he inherited from his father.

The business is being newly bilked by the Mafia. Not the perfunctorily threatening Jewish Mafia to which Copeland Leather and every other manufacturing business in the building has been accustomed to paying off. This is the deeply serious and deadly Mob. Which has singled out Copeland Leather for extortion.

One day, while traveling on the Staten Island ferry, Harry spies a beautiful woman in white and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. She is Catherine Thomas Hale, of the Manhattan and Hamptons Hales, an heiress and Broadway ingénue. Catherine is strong, moral and wise. She meets Harry’s love and passion measure for measure. They are not really star-crossed lovers: Harry is a Harvard man, after all. But he is a Jew and he is broke – facts he and Catherine cannot long hide from her family.

But this is more than a love story. It is a tale of a city at a golden time, when the memories of two wars and the Depression remain vivid enough to fuse gratitude and caution, yet cannot stop the momentum of power and wealth that rocket New York inexorably forward as the steward of all things modern.

It is a thriller, where thugs with Thompsons are pitted against combat heroes with iron nerves; it is a war set piece, where a band of brothers plummet into the mists and mud of western France; it is a window into a world of grand society, where money can buy everything but peace of mind and integrity.

It is true, Helprin uses six words when two would suffice, but never once does the sprawl, the grandiloquence, feel like an attempt to dazzle or distract. The gorgeous language wraps, not traps, the reader; the descriptions of characters and settings put the reader fully inside a moment, most of which you want never to end.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is romanticism at its soft-focus, golden-hued, unapologetic best. Characters are a little more beautiful, dangerous, erudite and talented than real life could afford; food is more delicious, sunsets more vivid, memories more precise and comforting, It is a novel for pleasure-seekers, for readers ready to sink into a web spun by a story-teller. Logic and relativism need not apply; only good guys, bad guys, truth and beauty allowed.

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Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It’s that 3-star curse: “I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma’am.” My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that’s all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history’s clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints (“He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.”) and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob’s your uncle and I’m your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I’ve been gobsmacked by Alan Furst’s novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in “historical thriller” sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

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