“All The Light We Cannot See”, by Anthony Doerr

After a long absence (due to a happy cocktail of getting married a few months’ ago; taking an Environmental Studies AS level; and trying my hand at a few pieces of freelance writing for Collectively) I finished All the Light We Cannot See last night, and, once the sobs had subsided, immediately felt the need to write a review.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the most stirring and tender pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Centred around the build up to, and fall out from, the Second World War, it tells the story of two children – Marie-Laure and Werner.

Marie-Laure is a young Parisian who, having lost her sight as a little girl, learns to revel in the mysteries of the world through the patience and love of her father. Her Papa is a locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and as well as designing impregnable cases for the Muséum’s treasures, builds his daughter a miniature version of Paris as a way of teaching her how to find her way through the city. Their relationship is beautifully drawn – the way in which Marie-Laure’s father teases the confidence and imagination out of her, and, as the story progresses, shields her from the horrors of war, is deeply moving without ever feeling sentimental.

Just before she loses her sight, Marie-Laure is told the story of a large blue diamond locked up somewhere in the Muséum, which confers eternal life on whoever carries it whilst inflicting destruction on their loved-ones: the Sea of Flame. As the Nazis swarm across Europe (and unbeknownst to his daughter) Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted either with the real diamond or a decoy, and told to get it out of Paris. The pair make their way to Saint-Malo; to the home of Marie-Laure’s brilliant great-uncle, Etienne, a man still deeply scarred by the horrors he witnessed in the First World War. Inevitably the legend of the diamond obsesses one particularly cruel treasure-hunting Nazi, who pursues the small family to their hiding-place and threatens to destroy their sanctuary.

Woven into these scenes is the story of Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, both snow-haired orphans living in a mining town in Germany. When he is still very young Werner finds a discarded radio, which he teaches himself how to fix. As he is flicking through the static one evening, he discovers a distant French voice giving dream-like lectures to children on science and the mysteries of the universe. He and Jutta fall in love with the voice and the worlds of knowledge it opens up to them. For Werner in particular, the mysterious Frenchman inspires a deep fascination in mathematics and engineering, and before long he has become a prodigious radio-engineer. His remarkable academic abilities win him a scholarship to one of the Nazi’s top boys’ schools, and as Jutta looks on in despair, her gentle, curious brother becomes mired in the moral horrors of Hitler’s programme for Germany’s elite children.

In one respect, this is a good old-fashioned page-turner: in addition to inter-weaving the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr also takes you backwards and forwards in time so that their denouement is teased from the very beginning. It’s wholly gripping, and I simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished it last night. More than that, though, the novel unravels the ways that war strips the magic and wonder from life. In their own ways, the novel’s children are fascinated by the natural world – by molluscs and radio waves, botany and birds. The machine of war corrupts, steals and warps those passions, threatening not just the characters’ lives but also the inexplicable mix of kindness and intellectual curiosity which defines them. One of the questions which is asked time and time again throughout the story is what these children might have been had it not been for the barbarity of that war: yes, the novel is affirming in many ways and there’s a vein of indomitable humanity throughout, but it is also, inevitably, completely heart-breaking, as each of the characters loses the world they’d known and the life they might have lived.

When I’d finished snivelling into the kitchen roll, I have to say that it all felt quite timely and political, too. Hopping onto my soap box for a minute, I’ll be voting to remain in the EU for a raft of reasons (it makes economic sense; our only hope of decent environmental legislation comes from Europe; the immigration scare-mongering is Daily Mail nonsense; and we need to avoid the TTIP by being part of Europe, not by substituting it for something more sinister (as George Monbiot wrote today)). But it’s also more fundamental than that. The EU may primarily have an economic raison d’être, but it was essentially assembled in the wake of this very war to create a united, peaceful, prosperous Europe. I defy anyone to read a novel like this and to feel isolationist.

All-Light-We-Cannot-See

“Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household

The behaviour of a rogue may fairly be described as individual, separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.

Roger Deakin mentions Rogue Male a number of times throughout Notes from Walnut Tree Farm – I think it would be impossible to finish Deakin’s book without feeling compelled to read Geoffrey Household’s most famous offering at the earliest opportunity.

It is an absolute gem of a novel – with all of the ingredients required for a classic adventure story paired with a fascinating psychological study of the classic British gentleman. The enigmatic hero, who is never named, is clearly the prototype for characters like James Bond; maverick Brits of a certain class who tear up the rule book for the sake of Queen and Country. And yet one of fundamental features of this story is that our man is not motivated by patriotism – he is a true rogue with an independent will. As he says towards the end, “I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.” This prototype is arguably more nuanced than any of his later reincarnations, and far more dangerous and intriguing as a result.

The novel – written in the first person, as the hero records his experiences in a notebook – opens with a failed assassination. Our protagonist, half-convinced that he is stalking his prey out of a love of the sport rather than with any intent to kill, is caught aiming his rifle at a European dictator bearing more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. When he is interrogated by the dictator’s lackeys, he argues that he is nothing more than an eccentric sportsman who wanted to know whether it might be possible to shoot his prey if he so wished; unsurprisingly this doesn’t wash, and our nameless hero is brutally tortured. The scene is entirely left to the imagination and, like all the thrillers, the reader has to conjure the punishments for herself – suffice to say that by the time the hero is hurled from a cliff, one eye is burnt and swollen, his nails have been removed, his fingers crushed, and the masticated flesh of the back of his legs is in a dire state. Rather than dying in the marshland below as his torturers had intended, however, the figure crawls out of the slime like a primordial beast, dragging himself to the safety of some nearby woodland. Through his ingenuity and grit, our man finds himself back in England, now being hunted both by the (let’s call them German) spies, and the English police. Whilst we are not told his name, we know that he is very well known to his countrymen as a result of past exploits in foreign lands – in addition to having a very recognisably wounded eye. He therefore decides that he must go to ground to evade his would-be captors, and chooses Dorset as his refuge.

The plot would be enticing enough; and then there is the quality of the writing itself. Household, speaking through his narrator, is shrewd and full of insight; “I felt I had come home –  a half-melancholy sense of slippered relaxation.”  You, the reader, are invited to play with the idea of espionage, piecing together an image of the protagonist from the scant facts he reveals. We know he is relatively famous, or infamous in England; that he is in his late 30s; that his family home is centuries old, suggesting he is an aristocrat; we know he has travelled widely; and that he likes big-game hunting. These pieces of information are revealed gradually over the course of the novel and as circumstances demand; they are not offered on a plate, but neither are they obscured. The same is true of the protagonist’s thoughts – he is relatively open about his opinions (“A hideous word, hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub”; “The only periods, I suspect, when a man feels captain of his soul are those when he has not the slightest need of such an organ”), but his motivations are concealed even from him. We do not know why he was aiming a gun at the dictator; he is not an agent of the state, and keeps telling himself that he did not mean to pull the trigger. But, through the course of the novel, and as our man is physically tortured, interrogated, and even buried alive, he accesses feelings he had been suppressing, and in doing so gradually reveals himself to us. “By writing of him I become him for the time.”

I won’t tell you exactly what he discovers about himself as he presses his cold body into a burrow in Dorset, other than to say that it certainly cements his heroic status. What is even better is that, as Robert Macfarlane’s excellent introduction explains, Household’s career during the Second World War almost rivalled his creation’s in resourcefulness and courage.  A rip-roaring, intelligent yarn; thank you, Roger Deakin.