Saturday, November 7, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See: a book club review

Even book club reviews have fallen by the wayside of late, but there is so much food for thought in Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See that I wanted to try to get a few of those thoughts sorted out (full disclosure - I have 20 pages left to read, though really the story is over and the rest seems kind of ... pointless). 

All the Light We Cannot See is rich and poetic and annoying and stilted and incomplete and brimming with the horror of war and the wonder of life. As I said at book club tonight, I don't think I've ever had such a complicated relationship to a book before. It is compelling, but is is not a page turner. I fall asleep every time I try to read it in bed (though that may be due to some other things going on right now), but it holds me rapt when I'm able to focus on it. 

The story takes place, mainly, in the Breton town of Saint Malo during WW2. The young protagonists are a blind French girl - Marie-Laure - and Werner, a German orphan who sees his invitation to the army training school as a way to avoid the otherwise inevitable life and death in the coal mines of his German home town. Both are inquisitive, intelligent adolescents with a curiosity that has questionable benefits. It doesn't pay, in war, to be overly clever; far safer to be unquestioning and placid. Through twists that only the surreal worlds of war and novels can support, Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths inevitably cross, though to say more would be unfair. 

As I said, there's a lot to unpack in Doerr's 500+ densely-written pages. A running reference to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, repeated playing of Claire du Lune on a phonograph. The interplay of French civilians - collaborators or resistance or neither, German soldiers, and nominally but irritatingly "movie-star handsome" American soldiers to the rescue. Electronic engineering. The unleashing of man's inhumanity to man. The annoying and expected over-statement of America 'rescuing' Europe. Truly magical explorations of sea life and birds.

Reading this book was like having a rough tag in the back of a cashmere sweater. The chapters are annoyingly short and choppy - generally 2 pages, often shorter. The result is a limping story that jerks back and forth between characters, countries and time periods. It lacks flow. There is a surfeit of characters; I can't say who I would edit out as they are all interesting enough on their own, but they drop away and we lose their stories in a way that is unsatisfactory and incomplete. 

One thing I loved about this story was a thread throughout it that valued a desire for and appreciation of both art and science. Much is made of the Natural History Museum in Paris; Audubon's book of American birds is mentioned repeatedly, and the gathering of knowledge for its own sake is celebrated by the characters. It is not pedantic in the least - it simply and genuinely displays a love of knowledge. And that makes me smile.

I have at least two more blog posts I could write about this book. It seems unlikely that I will. In case I don't, remember this,
“When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don't you do the same?”

“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”

A book club review isn't a book club review without a discussion of book club, and - generally more to the point - a discussion of book club dinner. A book set mainly in Brittany is always going to inspire a fabulous meal, and Mrs. S. did not disappoint. In the story itself both fish stew and bread are mentioned. In fact, bread has an important role in carrying messages for collaborators.

Mrs. S asked the local gluten-free bakery if they'd bake a message into a loaf to recreate that, but they were unobliging. It was still delicious bread though, especially paired with a rich, tomatoey, sumptuous halibut stew. Halibut may not be an Atlantic fish (nobody seemed to know), but when your hostess is from the north tip of Vancouver Island and she has access to fresh halibut, you better believe we were too busy chowing down to dock her points on authenticity. 

And the coup de grace ... the piece de resistance ... chocolate eclairs. I kid you not. Oh they were creamy and the pastry was light and the chocolate was so rich. I could live on those chocolate eclairs - not for very long as that shit will kill you, but ... oh they were perfection. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...