Monday, March 28, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Sitting on the top of the NY Times Best Sellers List for the last two years is the complex novel of wartime France and Germany. But All the Light We Cannot See is so much more than that. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since its publication and the impetus to read it now comes from the lecture to be held 4 April 2016 as part of the Ten Literary Evenings of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series.

The basic premise (if there can be such a concept) of Doerr's work is the parallel lives of two young adults during the ending days of World War II. Werner Pfennig is an orphan who has an incredible gift for understanding, building, and using radio transmissions. Living in the Zollverein section of Germany, he found an old radio that he repaired and on which he and his sister, Jutta, listened to broadcasts from France. He is selected to attend a "prestigious" technical school where he will hone his skills and be trained for military maneuver and tracking the resistance movement. He is stationed in Germany, Russia and, finally, Saint Malo.

Marie Laure LeBlanc, blind since the age of six, lives in Paris with her father, Daniel, who is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History.  Her father is a loving and doting person. He builds a model of the neighborhood in which they live that includes every drainpipe, house, and even manhole covers so that Marie Laure can have some independence when she is out of their residence. As the Germans occupy Paris, the two flee to the countryside, described by Doerr in haunting and realistic narrative. Entrusted to Daniel is the extremely valuable "Sea of Flames" diamond, the possession of which held a curse and a promise. It was so precious that other models have been made to divert any treasure seekers, such as the nefarious Reinhold von Rumpel.  They finally reach the Britanny coast town of Saint Malo and the home of her great uncle, Etienne and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. There again Daniel builds a model of the area surrounding Etienne's house. The house holds many secrets including many radio transmitters, a false backed wardrobe and the mysterious activities of the agoraphobic Etienne. The model that Daniel constructs holds these secrets and even more.

The story that unfolds in these two different worlds is gripping and compelling. The will to survive, overcoming fear and the presence of life are underlying themes. It would be impossible to count the number of times light or the absence of it was referenced in the book. Perhaps the most powerful  quote is uttered by the French radio broadcaster: "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." Doerr utilizes a complex narrative style as he alternates focusing on Werner and Marie Laure and moving back and forth in time. The reader knows that the two lives will cross paths, but is not sure whether the intersection will be as good and evil or as another encounter. The conclusion of the book is intricate as it intertwines the lives of the characters in a time far distant from the original period of the novel. I am intrigued by Saint Malo and would love to visit the city. Although complex, the chapters are short, manageable and conducive to a emotional and wondrous read.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

There are some authors whose works you will always like. Chris Bohjalian is one of those novelists. In The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian centers his story around the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It truly amazes me that as much as I have studied history, read books, and watched movies, I was very unaware of this horrible event.

Bohjalian deftly weaves the account from the present to the past as he reveals the heinous slaughter of the Armenian people. Inspired to learn more about her granndparents' past, Laura Petrosian is the present day narrator who retells their story through the eyes of her Boston Brahman grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott. Elizabeth, a recent Mt. Holyoke graduate with some training in nursing travels to Aleppo with her father. She is there to help with the humanitarian aid. In addition, she is chronicling her time there through letters that she is writing to The Friends of Armenia. The description of the conditions were difficult to read and were a rude awakening. Laura wonders how so many people could be killed without the world knowing. The answer she gives is that they were killed in the middle of nowhere. 

While in Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armen, an engineer who is mourning the abduction of his wife and daughter. The two become close just as Armen is urged to flee the area to save his life. He embarks on a course that will change his life and Elizabeth's. Ancillary characters include Helmut, a German who is outraged at what his country is doing, who is photography the atrocities, Hatoun, a young girl who witnessed her mother's slaughter and is mute, and Nevart who took Hatoun under her wing.

Laura also relates some of the stories she remembers as a child, but mourns that her grandparents never shared more of their life. Her recollections and her own story are captivating and engaging. But then a photograph is discovered and a strange twist to her family tree is unearthed. 

The Sandcastle Girls  is complex, illuminating, and intertwines the present and past as only a master storyteller could. It becomes an even more compelling novel when you realize that Bohjahlian has been inspired by his heritage and the lives of his grandparents. As the reader finishes the epilogue, the story comes full circle and the emotional drain that one has felt throughout the book reaches an astounding climax.