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Posts Tagged ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

I don’t really remember how this book got on my radar — probably I read an advance review somewhere. I haven’t read Chris Cleave before, but I knew he wrote “it” books that get loads of attention, and I have to admit, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon of very popular books. For example, I was not as impressed with All the Light We Cannot See as many people were. So I was a little skeptical of another “it” WWII novel.

But I really liked Everyone Brave is Forgiven in large part because I could not resist Mary North. She’s a young woman from a well connected London family who “left  finishing school unfinished” to sign up for war work as soon as Britain declares war. The War Office sends her to a school, which she thinks is a joke or a cover for something more dashing but turns out to be life changing.

One of her tasks is to prepare the children for evacuation, and to go with them. But her headmistress thinks Mary is too familiar with the children, and tells her she’s not a good teacher and must stay behind. Mary is worried about Zachary, an African American boy whose father is in a minstrel show, and writes to him in the countryside. He’s being neglected.

That sets the rest of the plot in motion. Mary goes to Tom Shaw in the Education department and complains about the critique of her teaching and asks to have a school for kids who are making their way back to London because they’ve been rejected — or worse — by their host families. Before long she has a small class, Zachary and some disabled children. And she and Tom see more of each other.

Mary and Tom each have a best friend who also become involved in the story. But it doesn’t devolve into a light hearted romance. In fact, the descriptions of London during the Blitz and then Malta under siege are very bleak, but the view of love is almost as tough: “Tom understood why the good actors in the movies never said it with a smile. To be in love was to understand how alone one had been before. It was to know that if one were ever alone again, there would be no exemption from the agony of it.” When Tom is despairing about being turned down by the Air Force and also that “it isn’t how it was” between him and Mary she says, “We must take turns, don’t you think? Every time one of us is buried like this, we shall dig the other one out.” I think that’s exactly what love in the midst of crisis is.

And Cleave shows the enormity of the crisis in London very very well. Mary has a keen sense of social justice and she notices all of the disparity that comes into greater focus during the Blitz. But also the despair that finally sets in. At one point when she has reached a personal low, she’s sitting outside and she hears women sweeping: “The hissing of the brooms carried a whisper: that life was cracked and gone. That any life left behind was not the good kind, which stubbornly built on rubble . . . . London was a stopped gramophone with no hand to wind it. It smelled of cracked sewers and escaping town gas and charred wood, wet from fire hoses.”

Tom’s friend Alistair has his own story; he’s a conservator at the Tate and once the art is secured, he volunteers. In the author’s note Cleave mentions that Alistair’s service on Malta is based on Tom’s grandfather’s service there. The horrors Alistair experiences, starting in training and right through to the end of the war, are also well told. They’re awful, but Cleave says he ‘hoped to highlight the insincerity of the wars we fight now — to which the commitment of most of us is impersonal, and which finish not with victory or defeat but with a calendar draw-down date and a presumption that we shall never be reconciled with the enemy. I wanted the reader to come away wondering whether forgiveness is possible at a national level or whether it is only achievable between courageous individuals.”

Just as hearing an author always give me a greater understanding of a book, reading this wonderful note at the end helped me like Everyone Brave is Forgiven even more.

 

 

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I feel like a bit of a Scrooge when I don’t love a book someone else has recommended to me as wonderful, and even more so when the rest of the book world has mostly raved about it too. Recently I felt that way about All the Light We Cannot See. It’s been a tough winter around here and I’ve been in a slight reading funk — several books I thought I’d like I didn’t even try getting through. But Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud was one I was sure I’d like, based on a library colleague’s hearty endorsement in a book chat session, so I stuck it out. It’s a novel featuring a real historical figure, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, over the course of several months in 1914. The novel’s narrator is Thomas Maggs, only surviving son of a pub owner who drinks too much. He’s got a lame foot and his mother wants him in school, since his foot will prevent him going to sea like so many other local boys.

There are some interesting things going on here — the real story of Mackintosh’s life, told as the boy learns it himself; the friendship between the misfit boy and the misunderstood artist, and the war with Germany creating paranoia and xenophobia in a small village on the Suffolk coast. Freud brings the atmosphere to life, as well as the country and seaside. That said, most of the characters just weren’t compelling enough for me to care what happened to them. Thomas’s family seemed like characters I’ve seen before — the tragically drunken father, the abused but long-suffering mother who protects the kids, one sister who goes into service and another who pines after her fiancee, presumed lost at sea. But doesn’t pine so much as to not get up to a little recreational fun with the soldiers billeted in the pub. Even Mackintosh and his wife, true though their story may be, seemed to be typecast in the midst of all this — foreigners (even though they’re only from Scotland) suspected of spying, the brilliant man whose rejection bruises his ego to the point of impacting his ability to work, the wife who carries him through.

My immediate reaction to the ending was to dislike it strongly. On reflection, half a day later, I still think it was rushed and unbelievable, but at least it felt fresh and new compared to the rest of the book. And yet — for some reason I spent my rare spare time with this book for several nights, and stayed with it through the end. Freud’s writing drew me on somehow.

Did you read this book? Did you like it more than I did? Leave a comment and tell me what I’ve missed.

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You’ve no doubt heard of this book, which was on just about every “best books of the year” list for 2014. After all the rave reviews, I was quite curious to see whether All the Light We Cannot See would live up to the hype. It sort of does. I definitely enjoyed it, and I think Doerr’s writing is wonderful — rich in detail, fine, lyrical:

“He has tried every test he can think of without involving another soul,” for example. And ” . . . her existence has become tolerable. At least, out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.” And “To men like that time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it.”

The story is unique but also timeless. Two young people, Werner and Marie-Laure, growing up in countries that will soon be at war, who are connected by a mysterious radio broadcast. One hears it, one is the grandchild of the man who recorded it. Doerr sets their lives spinning and throughout the book, directs their orbits closer and closer, until, as WWII draws to an end, they cross. The novel’s structure, passing back and forth between these two characters, and back and forth in time, matches its narrative arc, which bobs and weaves.

But, lovely and interesting as it is — full of all the little pieces of Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives, all the supporting characters who flesh out their stories, all the historical background, all the science — the book is too long, and in places, too slow to develop. I had to work to get through it in two weeks, and in the middle the only thing that kept me going was knowing that a good portion of the book world loved it.  Some of the characters’ lives take turns that are deeply unsatisfying, but that is true of life as well. Some portions of the story are improbable and even perhaps a little too tidy, but I was able to suspend disbelief. Doerr doesn’t tie up the ending with a neat bow, he leaves a little mystery, a little for the reader to puzzle over, which I like.

So although I’m glad I read it and I can’t say I disliked it, I wasn’t wowed. I am sure many of you will disagree with me, so if you loved this book on every single page, leave a comment and tell me why.

 

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