All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeMy husband recommended All The Light We Cannot See in January, and again in February. I began reading it then, but was waylaid by other reading obligations. Having fulfilled those, I escaped back into Doerr’s novel a week ago and COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

There, got that off my chest. Now that you know how much I enjoyed this novel, perhaps a few words about why.

As Goodreads reviewer Melinda said so succinctly, All The Light We Cannot See is about “A blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

The intricacy with which the novel is constructed contributes to its success as Anthony Doerr builds our interest, raising the tension chapter by chapter while switching back and forth between Marie-Laure and Werner with occasional stops with other characters. I never lost the thread, even though the story also switches time periods as it unfolds.

Let’s have a look at the 7 elements of historical fiction as a frame for commenting on the novel.

Characters: characters should “behave in keeping with the era they inhabit” which includes the norms, attitudes, beliefs and expectations of their time and station in life. Werner is an orphan sent to a German school training boys to be soldiers. He’s smart, intellectually curious, and a whiz with anything electronic. We see the German military regime and fanaticism through his eyes and his journey to understand his purpose in life and the goodness life offers. Daughter of an expert locksmith, Marie-Laure is defined by her blindness, yet sees so much. Trapped in St. Malo with her reclusive great-uncle, his housekeeper and a secret some would kill for, it is Marie-Laure who learns how to survive and is brave enough to participate in the fight against Germany.

Beyond these two, other characters are illuminated: von Rumpel, Frederick, Etienne, Volkheimer, Madame Manec.

Dialogue: Anthony Doerr dispenses dialogue sparingly and effectively. He spends much more time on the inner dialogue of Werner, Marie-Laure and others.

Werner: “Why, even at the moment of his escape, must some inexplicable warning murmur in a distant region of his mind?”

“Every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right.”

“Open your eyes and see what you can see with them before they close forever.”

Sergeant Major von Rumpel: “Waiting, thinks von Rumpel, is a kind of war. You simply tell yourself that you must not lose.”

Frederick” “Your problem, Werner, says Frederick, is that you still believe you own your  life.”

Marie-Laure: “Who knew love could kill you?”

Setting: Ive read and written about WWII. Doerr creates not only scenes of war unfolding in all its gritty devastation, but he also immerses the reader in the atmosphere of living the hell of war as both soldier and citizen. The siege of St Malo is one set, another is the inside of a vehicle designed to find enemy radio transmitters, and a third is Etienne’s house where Marie-Laure lives on rue Vauborel.

Theme: Doerr explores themes of love, power, destiny, heroism, hope, coming of age, death, loss, patriotism, redemption. A huge canvas compressed into 531 pages.

Plot: step by step, the plot unfolds. Relentlessly Doerr guides us to the climax. Back and forth in time, back and forth between characters, yet we are never lost. Each scene comes alive. Tension builds.

Conflict: and there is so much conflict. At several points I wondered how the characters could possibly handle another day without falling apart.

Asked why he reveals much of what happens in August 1944 intermingled with the main storyline progressing from 1940 to 1944, Doerr said in an interview with Publishers Weekly:

If I have dinner with you and then at the end I pull out a gun and shoot you, that’s surprise; if I put the gun on the table at the beginning of the meal, that’s suspense.

World Building: an aspect that deserves specific mention is Anthony Doerr’s ability to make us see and feel the life Marie-Laure experiences in blindness. We are with her every step as she taps her way along the streets of St Malo. We feel what she feels, hear what she hears and taste what she tastes. A remarkable feat. Beyond that world, is that of World War Two, seen from both German and French points of view. The school Schulpforta is another part of the world Doerr constructs and here we experience the deviancy of training young boys to be German soldiers. Evil reigns in this world and few refuse to go along.

Beyond these seven elements, I should comment on the author’s superb imagery and prose.

My only caveat — you knew there would be something, didn’t you? — is the ending. To this reader, the novel should have ended soon after the siege of St Malo. The chapters in later years detract from the impact of the main story.

A great read. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON INSIDE HISTORICAL FICTION, subscribe to A WRITER OF HISTORY (follow button on the left margin)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Tracy Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures

I’m going to try something different. A few posts ago, I wrote about the ten essential ingredients for successful historical fiction. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is the first novel I’ve finished reading since that post. Chevalier was in the top historical fiction authors list so, why not rank her story against the list of essential ingredients?

Like a teacher marking the first exam of many or a judge ranking the first of many glorious dives, I will probably err on the side of being critical rather than generous. My apologies to the author.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning who has a unique gift: ‘the eye’ to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton … she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip – and the scientific world alight with both admiration and controversy. Prickly Elizabeth Philpot … becomes Mary Anning’s unlikely champion and friend, and together they forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century.

(1) superb writing – Chevalier’s prose is a delight but I found her pacing too leisurely although one could argue that the pacing suits a character of quiet gentility like Elizabeth Philpot and the seaside town of Lyme Regis in the 19th century. The dialogue works very well, a great blend of speech patterns that identify the time and circumstances of various characters without weighing the story down in colloquial phrases and speech patterns. In terms of emotional resonance, I identified with Elizabeth’s desire to make a life for herself and her willingness to be unconventional, and empathized with Mary Anning’s passion for fossil hunting and her fierce drive to help support her family. The plot twists and turns although the story remains subdued. 7/10

(2) dramatic arc of historical events – Chevalier structures the story by tracing the timeline of Anning’s major finds using alternating first person narratives of her main characters, Elizabeth and Mary. While I found each voice engaging, ultimately the calm unfolding of this first-person narrative undermines the drama of discoveries that must have turned the scientific and religious world upside down. For me, tension was missing. 6/10

(3) characters both heroic and human – In my opinion, Chevalier gets top marks for her portrayal of the two main characters and through their eyes, other characters such as Colonel Birch, William Buckland, Elizabeth’s sisters and Mary’s mother Molly also come alive. 9/10

(4) immersed in time and place – every historical novel comes with expectations of the time in which it is written. As a purchaser, one expects to be transported to another world and like a hypnotist’s subject I was ready to dwell in the early 19th century the moment I opened Remarkable Creatures. On page 9, this sentence was the compelling step back in time: “Once our brother married there would be neither the place nor the money for us all to live at Red Lion Square.” Descriptions of Elizabeth’s brother John, Lyme Regis, the Assembly halls and Margaret’s one chance to capture a husband solidified the era for me and Chevalier held all senses firmly in that period. 8/10

“The bathing machine, a little closet on a cart, had been pulled far out into the water to give her privacy.”

“And they find Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the world’s age as six thousand years comforting rather than limiting and a little absurd.”

Describing a salve made by Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, “made of beeswax, turpentine, lavender, and yarrow.”

“I expect your ichthyosaurus has a place in Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being.”

(5) corridors of power – Chevalier writes convincingly of the small town minister who is scandalized over Elizabeth Philpot’s notions that God’s creations might have become extinct, science battling religion. She also positions the leaders of England’s Geological Society and noted French naturalist and zoologist, Baron Georges Cuvier, as masters of their domains of power in evolving scientific thought. Another corridor of power is that of gender in the early 19th century. Men had all the power, brother over sister, husband over wife, even Philpot’s young nephew has more power than Elizabeth to enter the premises of the Geological Society at a crucial point in the novel. 7/10

“Besides which Mary Anning is a female. She is a spare part.”

“God in his infinite wisdom has peppered this world with mysteries for men to solve.”

(6) authentic and educational – I now know a lot about fossils, fossil hunting, and the debates prompted by Mary Anning’s discoveries. Remarkable Creatures also illuminates the prejudices of the times – the role of women, the spinster’s lot in life, country versus city, social classes and pecking order. Chevalier brings these details out seamlessly but without interfering with the story’s flow. Through Mary’s discoveries and Elizabeth’s learning the reader also learns. What could be dull, scientific information is anything but. 8/10

“Mr. Buckland handed me the blade, then sat back to watch me scrape along one of the ribs, freeing and brushing away the limestone that clung to it. Slowly a clear line emerged, and because I went at it carefully, the rib weren’t nicked or scored, but smooth and whole.”

“… quarrymen and not considered suitable for any but the most desperate women.”

(7) ageless themes – struggling out of poverty, the destructive power of jealousy, standing up for what you believe in and for people who are powerless, finding one’s identity, dealing with fame, the understanding that freedom has its price. These themes ring out with conviction. 8/10

Elizabeth: “So be it. A woman’s life is always a compromise.”

Mary: “She had too openly flouted the rules of what was expected from a girl in her position.”

(8) high stakes – reputation, friendship and love are at stake in the story. Significant matters although I sensed the outcomes early on which in my mind detracts from the impact. The most compelling matter is the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary. 6/10

In Mary’s voice: “It seemed whenever I found something, I lost something else. I found an ichthyosaurus and lost Fanny. I found Colonel Birch and lost Miss Elizabeth. I found fame and lost …”

(9) sex and love – the only significant male/female relationship is that of Mary and Colonel Birch. Chevalier renders it with charm, creating tension in the telling and a strong sense of poignancy in the conclusion. 7/10

“There I found out that lightning can come from deep inside the body.”

(10) dysfunctional families – the families of Mary and Elizabeth are not dysfunctional, although they operate in ways that modern readers might find unusual. From my perspective, minimal drama emerged from the family dynamics. 5/10

While I enjoyed the story, the characters and Tracy Chevalier’s writing, Remarkable Creatures is a quiet book and not a compelling page-turner. But then, of course, this is only my opinion.

An interesting exercise. What do you think?