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.

 

The Mussel Feast

Revolutionary Moments

Mussel FeastThe first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.

This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.

There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.

Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.

The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.

An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.

The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.

“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke

Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener  by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…

CIMG4717

Magda

Magda (2)In the course of Meike Ziervogel’s novella, we meet three generations of women in one family, an embittered grandmother, her daughter Magda and the lovesick teenager Helga. They have little in common except the desire to improve their lives and those of their children, something in which all three of them will spectacularly fail.

Magda succeeded in elevating her station in life, though some may have perceived that she achieved notoriety only through marriage. However, from an early age she appeared to decide she deserved better than the position society had set her; taking her destiny into her own hands it manifested physically in the clothes she wore, the adornments with which she accessorised and in her comportment. She kept quiet about her material accumulation, but her gestures spoke volumes and even as she volunteered selflessly to help those less well off, others looked at her with scorn and derision.

Despite her mother’s efforts to do her best by her headstrong daughter, that didn’t mean she should give herself airs and graces she was not born to, at least that was her mother’s opinion.

Was it a consequence of being sent to a convent for schooling at a young age (at the suggestion of a new stepfather) that developed her resourcefulness and sense of superiority? By the time her mother decided to end her education and send her to work in a factory to smother that conceited attitude, the stepfather who had come to adore the charming girl, would have none of it.

We learn of the mother’s perception of Magda after the fall of Hitler, whilst she is being interviewed by a commissar and she is revelling in having an important audience in which to denounce her child – though more through envy, jealousy and a sense of outrage at being unappreciated, forgotten even – not quite the admission of guilt he is looking for, though he hopes it may contribute to establishing Magda’s fanaticism.

It reflects the irony of a mother wanting the best for her baby girl and then having to live in the shadow of who her offspring has become, someone unreachable, who has by necessity let go and left the bitter mother full of resentment behind.

Magda_Goebbels

Magda Goebbels

Upon receiving this book from the author Meike Ziervogel, (also founder of the publishing company Peirene Press), I read a few mentions of intentions to read Magda that indicated a certain wariness, expecting it to be disturbing, as do a few of the more provocative blurb comments, suggesting the portrayal of mother’s as abusers and the association of one mother being a Nazi sympathiser and married to a prominent figure in that regime (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister).

I didn’t find the book like that at all and found the suggestion that…

…abuse breeds abuse through generation after generation. – Frederick Taylor, author of Exorcising Hitler

…misleading, even false.

I found much to admire in Ziervogel’s depiction of the character Magda, her ability to use disadvantage to her advantage, her separation from her mother allowed her to amass inner resources, to learn another language, to create a persona that made her different. She understood implicitly her mother’s advice that she should better her social status; her falling – or failing – was the direction in which she channelled the fire within her, that desperate need for some kind of meaningful fulfillment, that was at its height at the wrong time in history, her calling came not for Him (God) but for him (the Führer).

She believed in him and his vision with a fanaticism, similar to religious fanaticism and in the same way that a small minority of devout religious followers go to extremes for their beliefs, so too does Magda.

Helga’s is a brief, heart-breaking coming-of-age story, the story within the story and it seems appropriate that she, the innocent, is depicted through a different narrative structure, the intimacy of her private diary.

As I reread the last three chapters a second time, I noted  all the chapter headings which read like flash fiction, framing the story in less than thirty words.

3 generations by Allia

3 generations by Allia

The Preparation

The Girl Behind Convent Walls

The Mother and the Commissar

The Calling

Helga’s Diaries

The Pill Box

The Vision of Magda Goebbels

The Final Task

As a novella, Magda doesn’t waste words, yet it manages to depict the depth of the three generations of its female characters. While it succeeds here, the end remains shocking and disturbing, unjustified, it is impossible to accept.

The book is fiction, inspired by real historical figures and events. I have written these thoughts without having read about the actual life of Johanna Maria Magdalena “Magda” Goebbels (11 November 1901-1 May 1945), wishing to pay closer attention to the author’s story and her character creation than the historical account, which could easily overshadow one’s impression of a work of fiction.

Shadows & Wings Giveaway

Niki_Tulk_ShadowsAndWings

Niki Tulk
Author of Shadows & Wings

Thank you to author Niki Tulk for offering to provide two readers with a digital version of her debut novel Shadows & Wings.

Synopsis:

Tomas, a cellist and dreamer, denies the devastating changes happening in 1930’s Germany—until he is drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Many years later, having emigrated to Australia, he raises his granddaughter Lara to love music and birds. He also chooses to hide from her a terrible secret.

When her beloved Opa dies, 22 year-old Lara receives a shadow box of mysterious ornaments that force her to confront his past. Seeking to understand his years of silence, and to find a way through her own grief, she travels to Germany—the objects her only guide.

Shadows & WingsShadows & Wings is a novel of cyclic journeys between hemispheres, the connections between ourselves and those we can never know, and the haunting power of art, love and dreams.

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If you haven’t seen my review, click here to read it.

If you would like to be in the draw for one of the two digital copies, please leave a comment below.

The draw closes on Saturday 4th May.

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.