Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

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All The Light We Cannot See is an epic story about two children growing up as the Second World War breaks. Marie Laure is in France, and Werner Pfennig is in Germany. The story flits between the two main characters, across time, at times giving additional viewpoints as the story requires. All The Light We Cannot See is an extraordinary tale of growing up in challenging times and circumstances. Marie Laure gradually loses her sight becoming totally blind, making her world shrink further under the careful guidance of her father (Marie Laure is motherless). Werner Pfennig is an orphan, living with his sister in an orphanage. He is a boy full of curiosity, scientifically astute, with a natural gift to fix anything. His boyhood delight is the stories he hears late at night across the airwaves of a radio he has fixed. In due course Werner’s gift is recognised by the Nazis, and his future is shaped. Marie Laure’s future, by contrast, is shaped when she flees Paris with her father, the keeper of the keys of a Paris Museum. He is entrusted with one of the museum’s treasures, the fabled Sea of Flames, a rare and accursed diamond. They flee to St Malo, to the home of his brother, a recluse in a strange house.

Doerr’s story is a brilliant one, part fable, part tragedy, part thriller – and of course a story of children growing up. It is utterly absorbing. Doerr’s structure, building the story backwards and forwards across time, in bite sized chapters worked. It was compelling reading, and in that old cliche, a complete ‘page turner’. Doerr has created characters that I cared deeply about – it mattered to me what happened to Marie Laure, her father, Werner Pfennig, Pfennig’s friend in Nazi school, and Marie Laure’s Uncle. All of this around the mystery of the Sea of Flames. All The Light We Cannot See is written from the point of view of the children, so there is a real sense of villains and heroes. I think this gave it an almost fairy tale quality at times – of course orphans are a key ingredient of a good fairy tale.

The tension builds until you realise that the worlds of the two children, now adolescent, will collide. Werner’s role in the Nazi was to track radio transmissions, which eventually takes him to St Malo. This perhaps is where the story is the most tense and most moving.

The brilliance of All The Light We Cannot See is in the story, the characters, and the way it is written. However, it is not without its flaws. I did not like the ending, where time rolls forward and we see Marie Laure as a grandmother. It was a little to sewn up for my liking, a little too somehow ‘happily ever after’, even though it was not quite that. Doerr’s writing at times was luxurious. His attention to detail is breathtaking, and I would re-read sentences for the pure enjoyment of them. He conjures places into the space in front of you, particularly those through the eyes (sorry) of a blind girl. At others, the writing is over-dramatised and clunky. At one point I had to check that Doerr’s nationality, as the current day Americanisms scattered into speech jarred, taking me right out of the story. There is no place for those in the context of a historical fiction in European children. Doerr is adjective heavy, but that did not trouble me too much. There is so much to forgive in his bringing such a glorious story. For all its flaws, I highly recommend this ‘damn fine yarn’.

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

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Stoner is one of my friend Jane Moss’s favourite books – but I know of others haven’t enjoyed it. What would I make of if? Well, I devoured it in great chunks, like a binge eater with her head in the pantry. It was utterly mesmerising.

Stoner is a quiet and understated read, a bit like its main character, William Stoner. Stoner is a farm boy who in 1910 goes to college to study agricultural sciences and quietly falls in love with English Literature in a way that he cannot express. He ditches agriculture and switches to English Literature never to return to the homestead, but to embark on a career in academia. The passion for literature seems to lie locked inside of him, and you question whether it is the time or his upbringing that has it submerged, pouring out only at times. There are relatively few spells in Stoner’s life when he is bold – his proposal, his teaching, his decision about the war, and his eventual fight back into his role in the department. The rest of Stoner’s story is of a man repressed. Closed. Quiet.

At one level nothing much happens in Stoner. It is a character lead novel, rather like the work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. There are tensions between Stoner and his wife, the strange friendship and the ghost of a mutual friend, and Stoner’s nemesis is the head of department, the magnificent Lomax. And then there is Stoner’s daughter – the change in their relationship I felt most keenly when Stoner’s fragile wife takes centre stage and pushes Stoner to the margins of the family. I wept for Stoner. There is joy in Stoner, but good things never seem to last long, and things end badly. Williams certainly made Stoner suffer. When Stoner is dying (and this is no spoiler since the book opens with a kind of obituary), he reflects on his life. Did he regret his life? Williams gives us a highly moving and insightful reflection, which had me questioning my appreciation of William Stoner as I had read. Perhaps this is the genius and joy of the book, this dilemma and my dissection and examination.

Williams’ writing is brilliant. It is clean and quiet, you have the impression that every word has been carefully considered. Stoner is absorbing and clever. The micro examination of character is incredible, with Williams creating characters that walked off the page.

When I finished the book I felt satisfied, and intrigued. I reflected long about what was the magic in the book, a book that was both tragic and hopeful. A book with passion and without. A book where I wondered if Stoner was hero or wuss. Stoner is a stunning novel.

 

 

Book Review: Dirt Music by Tim Winton

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I adore Tim Winton’s short stories and I think he is an incredibly gifted writer. I love his writing – it is so clean and yet so rich. In Dirt Music, I wasn’t disappointed in his writing. However, it took me a while to get into it, longer than I expected, and I think I persevered because I hold him in such high regard. But perhaps it wasn’t Winton but me and the way I found time to read it – a bit disjointed. When I found the space for a run in, I was hooked.

Dirt Music is a love story, but not in any way that I’ve ever encountered a love story before. It is gritty, at times bleak and often uncomfortable. Dirt Music tells the story of Georgie Jutland, a woman without roots or ambition who somehow ends up in White Point, falling into the company of a local fisherman, Jim Buckeridge. She moves in with him and cares for his children without really caring for him. She clings to the comfort of alcohol as the fog of her life swirls about her, until she comes across Luther Fox, an outcast and shamateur (poacher), in the dead of night. Fox is the sole survivor of an accident, which haunts and defines him. These two drifters meet, and become entranced and involved with each other.

Winton makes each of these three characters suffer, as each appear on the edge of madness at times, each with pasts to resolve. These are scarred characters, more than the merely ‘flawed’ that most books will keep you in the company of. This makes it uncomfortable reading, as we are pulled through tough themes – violence, abusive relationships, isolation, tedium, and ultimately survival.

Winton narrates the story across the Australian outback, and this bleak landscape parallels the play between the characters. It is a stark story, which leaves the reader wondering if this is love, or a love that they might want. It is an unlikely love, painful rather than beautiful. Dirt Music is part thriller, as the violent secrets of the past are revealed in both Fox and Buckeridge.

And the title? ‘Dirt Music’ was once Fox’s passion and livelihood – it is the gritty music that arises from the dust, it is the music that Fox abandons after the accident, and claims back near the end of the story. The ending is harrowing; there is no fairytale ending. Dirt Music is a wonderfully beguiling book.

 

 

Book Review: Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

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Perhaps it’s because of where I am in my ‘writing career’ but I thought Prose’s book was a complete ‘gift’… for the most part. For the past eighteen months I’ve been dissecting the books that I’ve read, rather than just reading them, rather like a furtive English Literature undergraduate. But here’s the thing, I studied English Literature to A level some 30 years ago. I flicked through Reading Like A Writer on a writing retreat, and wondered if Prose would be able to support my goals, and I think she has.

I love Prose’s emphasis on slow reading, and the endeavour to read with a curious eye. Too often it is a temptation to scamper through the pages, but Prose encourages, and almost gives permission to indulge in the art of reading. At times reading Reading Like A Writer felt like having a personal workshop – Prose’s writing in itself is light, engaging and thought-provoking. Her choice of examples was not always as fluid. At times the examples had me muttering ‘oh yes,’ but others were too long to be of real help, and that was a frustration.

The early chapters I found to be the most helpful (except the one on paragraphs, which I took very little from) and the words/sentences chapters were inspiring on the craft of writing. Prose’s chapter on Chekov felt the most out of place – it felt more like a literary indulgence rather than reading – but I admit that I did find it absorbing. As a result, I am more curious to read Chekov’s short stories.

Prose comes across as being a little snobbish. Her emphasis and tolerance is for literary works, and she is dismissive of great swathes of genres. I find this a little tough, as personally, I think there is room for all kinds of books for all kinds of people.

Overall I found Reading Like A Writer to be helpful and inspiring. Prose ends with a ‘go and read list’, which is daunting, and a little shaming! I clearly have some way to go before I could sit at her feet and discuss books! That said, I am certain that I will invite her along in my work as I develop further. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read like a writer, and hasn’t come from an English Literature background.