All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

Sea swell at Manu Bay, Raglan, NZ

I read Anthony Doerr’s book after finishing two books that didn’t work too well for me and so the experience of dipping into the first few pages of Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See was like exiting the murky depths of a turbulent current to float in that gentle swell of the ocean just before the breakwater, where the waves lift us up and down like a life buoy without breaking.

Reading Doerr’s words and meeting his characters Marie-Laure, Werner and Jutta caresses the mind like the sea cradling the body as if it were weightless.

That light, the gentle caress of words that uplift, that intrigue, that follow through on their promise, that warns of tragedy and provides the reader with a guide to navigate the pages that follow.

All the LightMarie-Laure and her father live within walking distance of the Natural History Museum in Paris, where he works as the master of locks, the keyholder. When she is six Marie-Laure loses her sight and every year after that her father builds her a wooden structure that is a kind of puzzle box. Using her hands, she explores the gift to finds its hidden secret and despite its increasing sophistication and difficulty, each year it takes her less time to crack its ingenious code, opening it to reveal the gift within.

He also builds her a model of their neighbourhood, every home, building, street. She memorises it until she is ready to go out and discover the area in its life-size proportion. When the Germans occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo to stay with her reclusive Uncle and his housekeeper where they must build another model she will learn to navigate.

“For a long time though, unlike his puzzle boxes, his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment, is nothing like the real intersection. The real one represents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance; in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.

But her father’s model of the same intersection smells only of dried glue and sawdust. Its streets are empty, its pavements static, to her fingers it serves as little more than a tiny and insufficient facsimile.”

Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in Germany, their father killed in a coal mining accident. Werner has a fascination for radio, both listening to and repairing them; the siblings discover and listen to broadcasts from as far away as France and England until war approaches, when to be in possession of a radio becomes a dangerous and illegal pastime. However, his talent has not gone unnoticed and will fast-track him into the midst of Hitler’s youth and a role as a detector of radio signals, leading him in wartime to the north of France.

“At midnight he and Jutta prowl the ionosphere, searching for that lavish, penetrating voice. When they find it, Werner feels as if he has been launched into a different existence, a secret place where great discoveries are possible, where an orphan from a coal town can solve some vital mystery hidden in the physical world.”

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

Radiotriangulation Scheme: Source wikipedia

I really enjoyed this book, it made me care about the characters and interested in their lives and worry about them being on opposite sides of a great war. How could that ever be navigated safely?

Doerr describes the two different worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner with such clarity, overcoming blindness and interesting us in the intricacies of radio circuitry, pathways of electrons, amplifiers and transformer coils as if they were the most fascinating thing ever invented.

It is a story of survival, perseverance, passion and obsession set in the years leading up to and during WWII, it brings the streets, homes and sea wall of Saint Malo into the reader’s imagination where we too learn to see without seeing. And it will may make you curious to read Jules Verne if you haven’t already.

Anthony Doerr transmits an infectious enthusiasm for the story, creating endearing characters with rich, enticing prose, all the elements of great literary fiction that can entertain.

Further Reading:

New York Times Review Light Found in Darkness of Wartime

 

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

Shadows & Wings by Niki Tulk

Shadows & WingsLara’s father works abroad and early on in the story when Lara is seven, she and her sister learn he isn’t coming back home to Australia. She is close to her grandfather Opa, though realises a little late that there is much about his life that she doesn’t know, questions she never asked him, a subject her mother won’t speak of.

At his death, her great-aunt passes her the contents of an old wooden box, objects wrapped carefully and put away, never to be looked at; they will prompt her to travel to Germany to uncover his role in the second world war.

celloAt this point, we go back to the 1930’s to a small village in Germany where Tomas (Opa) and his friend Gustav live, Tomas’ father repairs violins, cellos and similar musical instruments and although initially Tomas doesn’t wish to play, when Gustav becomes interested and starts taking lessons, Tomas’ rekindles his love for the cello and will pursue music with the same determined passion his father had wished he would pursue a profession.

In school they are wary of the bullying Hans and his troop of followers and avoid them as much as they can, observing as they become teenagers their joining up a young Nazi youth group, something Tomas and Gustav avoid, but as 1939 approaches it will become impossible not to join their country’s ranks.

The story of the boys in their youth reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent novel Black Swan Green and Niki Tulk successfully captures that essence of survival developed by children on and off the playground, only here for many, those playground antics would escalate to being drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and a war with repercussions and psychological consequences that would continue into subsequent generations.

Lara’s grandfather arrived later, a thin half-man on a ship that emptied its human cargo unsympathetically into a bright and bristling land. Here, not long enough after the Second World War, those who bore in their eyes another hemisphere were received with cool politeness. It was not their accents so much as their eyes – they held a silence that made others who had grown up here suddenly feel they needed to defend themselves. Tomas had discovered Lara’s grandmother like a familiar face in this country.

Lara’s search into her grandfather’s past and meeting Anton and friends in Berlin brings those repercussions forward to the present day. Lara’s own fragility and insecurities threaten to undermine her search and if it weren’t for Anton, her patient guide and new-found friend, we are left with the impression that her endeavour may quite well have failed. Her journey seemed at times so realistic, she seemed so ill-prepared and at times insensitive to what she might encounter by knocking on the doors of strangers, that it felt as if I were reading non-fiction. Unnerving yet totally believable.

The book falls into three main sections, Lara growing up in Australia with her mother and grandparents, Tomas as a boy and young man in Germany and finally Lara at 22-years-old on her extended visit to Germany.

albatross

An albatross in flight Photo: Wikipedia

Interspersed throughout the third person narrative, is Tomas’ journey on the boat between Europe and Australia and these short entries of a page or two entitled The Gift of Birds, The Gift of Time, Memory and Dreams provide some of the more poignant passages, they are the pages I returned to and reread a second time, some even a third.

They are written in the first person, at times focused on the present,  on the passage across the ocean and the words of a man making the same voyage who is knowledgeable about birds and their habits, and at other times they describe remnants of his dreams, regrets, the past, all that he intends to leave behind him when he disembarks. They provide a reflective counterpoint to the harsh reality of daily life in Germany as a young man, a life which drove him towards an activity he had no ambition for. These pages rebuild hope and show us the man he was.

“The cycle of the ages is the foundation.”

The man who loves birds stares into his fingers, deep in thought. “They recede, they advance… and the pattern of migration adjusts and adapts over many thousands of years. They are,” he adds, “in tune with the ages, whereas we consider only our own lifetimes. We are short-term thinkers, unfortunately.”

It is a thought-provoking story of the depths to which we go to protect our loved ones from the horrors of the past and suggests that silence isn’t always the route towards salvation, that memories and guilt often live on in subsequent generations, that a deprivation of family knowledge can lead to an obsession to fill in the gaps.

It reminds us that our elders are a source of great learning and that we shouldn’t wait until after they have gone to understand what life has taught them. It cautions us not to judge that which we haven’t experienced and to beware of what we might find when we go digging into the past of those who have tried to bury deep the horrors that return to them only in their sleep.

Thank you Niki for providing me with a copy of your book, not only a great story, but beautifully printed and music to accompany composed together and played by Niki on cello and her husband Mark on piano.

Shadows & Wings – the 5 track EP.

Giveaway – enter the draw to win one of two digital copies of Shadows & Wings

Australian Literature Month – April is Australia Literature Month,  visit Reading Matters to find out more.

Life after Life after Life…

It was suggested to Kate Atkinson, that the above might be a more apt title for her book, as the lives relived by the protagonist Ursula in Life After Life are many. In this book, the author has written something unlike anything that precedes it, a return perhaps to the kind of books she was writing before she started on her crime series featuring the fictional detective Jackson Brodie.

life after lifeLife After Life presents numerous versions of Ursula’s life story, a life whose course sometimes changes when her response to an event or an encounter is different to how she responded previously. It is not a conscious change, although she does possess a sense of déjà vu at times, however she is more propelled by instinct than any knowledge of having already lived, or perhaps she is responding to the ever strengthening morphic fields (see link below), that ability to tap into our own and the collective consciousness of remembered events, that link across time between the past and the present, which inevitably become stronger in someone who keeps returning, preparing them for future events.

The story begins (or does it end?) in 1930 before going back to her birth in February 1910. Her earliest lives pass quickly, birth at that time being as traumatic as, if not more difficult to survive than war. When the doctor can make it through the snowstorm and unwrap the umbilical cord from around her neck, she will have a better chance of surviving.

St Paul's during the Blitz

St Paul’s during the Blitz

Ursula’s story for its many stops when darkness falls and restarts, takes place predominantly between 1910 and 1941 in England and Germany, with much of the narration taking place during the war, in particular the 57 consecutive nights of bombardment in London from September 1940, “the blitz”, when more than one million homes were destroyed and over 40,000 civilians killed with many more injured.

There are significant turning points in her adolescence connected with the lecherous friend of her brother and a passing stranger with insidious intent, otherwise she makes it to an independent life in London during the second world war in scenes that Atkinson brings alive in unimaginable ways, a city where nowhere is safe from the nightly bombs that will fall, their paths of destruction unpredictable, those who survive, forever changed by that traumatic experience.

WWII_London_Blitz_East_LondonIn the same way that one never knows which choices will lead to life and which to certain death as bombs rain down on London, so too as readers, do we turn each page with similar trepidation, never quite sure when darkness may fall again and our story begin over. Unpredictable, because subsequent experiences don’t necessarily guarantee a longer life, Life After Life has a simple structure, yet leaves the reader aware of the countless possibilities that could manifest.

The BBC interviewer asked a question I had been pondering, suggesting that for a writer, there are numerous outcomes possible when plotting a story and in a sense this book is like stringing together several drafts, however Atkinson says that although you could consider it like that, it is not her method to write like that, it seems that she set out with this structure in mind, that she always knew how it was going to end, although I am unsure whether this story can ever end, you can see how it might go on forever.

BlitzaftermathThe appeal of the story for me is intricately tied to that structure and in fact I find it hard to think only about the story itself, which begs the question, which version of the story is the story? This is not a typical tale of transformation of a protagonist, while we recognise Ursula’s character in the many lives she lives, the story shows just how different our lives could become, based on even insignificant choices we make as well as the random events that can interrupt that path and change its course indelibly.

Life After Life is also a turning point for Kate Atkinson who says she won’t be writing another Jackson Brodie novel for a very long time, having felt some relief at being set free from the intricate plotting involved in crime writing and enjoyed getting back to just writing. She mentioned two possibilities for her next novel, either a companion novel to this one about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, called A God in Ruins, or an homage to Agatha Christie, about a group of people stranded in a countryside hotel in a snowstorm during a murder mystery weekend called Death at the Side of the Rook.

It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.

So let’s see how the judges of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 respond, this title having just made the long list.

Additional Resources

Morphic Fields & Morphic Resonance – Rupert Sheldrake interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun Literature Magazine Feb 2013

Interview – Meet the Author – Nick Higham of the BBC speaks to Kate Atkinson.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Appreciating the rain is something I have learned relatively recently and how appropriate that I have a vision of it today, accompanied by the growing rumble of distant thunder and the occasional flash of lightning.

Until I lived in the south of France I had never experienced a period of two months continuous sunshine without a drop of rain or threat of a grey cloud on the horizon and so I began to understand and live with the dry and dusty consequence, those vast blue skies compensating for the lack of green, for without moisture there is no grass, no lush green of the variety that grows, horizontal, vertical, almost everywhere in that land of the long white cloud of my past, Aotearoa; growth that without vigilance would suffocate all that man has tried to impose in its place.

Children here are a reminder of this different relationship to rain, they adore it and can relate to Tess, the protagonist of Karen Hesse’s wonderful children’s book Come on, rain!  Tess pleads to the sky as she, her friends, her mother and all the plant life around them swelter and suffer in the interminable heat, hoping for some respite.

I stare out over rooftops,

past chimneys into the way off distance.

And that’s when I see it coming,

clouds rolling in

grey clouds, bunched and bulging

A creeper of hope circles ’round my bones.

“Come on, rain!” I whisper.

The Gift of Rain however is the title of Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel.  His second novel The Garden of Evening Mists’ was short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and after reading a review of that book, it was suggested I should start with his début novel The Gift of Rain, longlisted for the Booker in 2007.

An ancient soothsayer once told Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton, the half-Chinese, youngest son of a British business man:

You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly.

Remember – the rain also brings the flood.

She also tells him that his companion Endo-san, his Japanese sensei, a Japanese diplomat, mentor and master of Aikido, that they have a past together in a different time and that they have a greater journey to make after this life. These are words the young man has no wish to hear, nor believes, though they will stay with him and he will see them with greater clarity as an old man, the man we meet in the opening pages in fact, as the story is narrated from dual perspectives, one as an older man recounting his life and relationship with Endo-san to an elderly Japanese widow who once loved Endo-san and has travelled from a small village in Japan to seek him out before her own death, and the second perspective when is that young man.

As Philip shares his and Endo-san’s story, we meet him as a young man living in Penang, a Malayan country ruled by the British with strong Chinese, Indian and Siamese influences.

His story unfolds in the wake of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II when Philip finds that his knowledge of Japanese culture and his close friendship with his teacher can be of benefit to protect his family, though that is not how they or many others in this mixed community see his actions and involvement. He is not always convinced of his own argument and there will be much suffering in consequence.

The story navigates a complex web of connections that crosses cultures and countries, tests friendships, loyalties, duty, offers opportunity and witnesses’ betrayals. It will keep you thinking for some time after the last page is turned.

Duty is a concept created by emperors and generals to deceive us into performing their will. Be wary when duty speaks, for it often masks the voice of others.