It seems remarkable to me—an almost spooky coincidence, as a matter of fact— that the two best books I’ve read this summer were produced by two authors who were both offering workshops at the same time in the same place—the One Story writers’ conference, called Sirenland, in Positano, Italy this past April—and that both deal with a different aspect of the same subject, World War Two. Stylistically, they’re complete opposites. One novel is lean and pithy, with a measured, sure-footed economy of style; the other is written with an expert, bravura elegance, full of rich detail, in prose that seems carved out of the air. Yet each, in its own way, is true to its purpose, and absolutely top-drawer.
I’m referring to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—which won the Pulitzer Prize this year—and Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aaron—which certainly ought to win an award equally prestigious! I’ve already written about Shepard’s book (August 13, 2015) but have only now found the right moment to write about Doerr’s.
Shepard’s book is slender, laconic, and spare, describing the squalor, misery and horror of the Polish ghetto as seen through the eyes of one unremarkable boy. Doerr’s book takes place in Germany and France both before and during the war, in alternating, yet interlaced segments, primarily through the eyes of two characters: a remarkable young German boy and an equally remarkable young French girl, who is blind. It’s clear from the beginning that their paths will cross, but the question of how still manages to provide ample opportunity for ratcheting up the tension. In contrast to Shepard’s terseness, Doerr’s prose is lush and sensuous, squirming with details of places, sights, smells, sounds, and the inner workings of the inquisitive minds of its characters. There is a host of minor folk as well, all beautifully rendered, but the French girl’s father, and the sister of the German boy, play major roles. Still it is sound, not people, which finally brings the two youngsters together. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you what that means.
Among the many enjoyable accomplishments of Doerr’s book is the delineation of so many scientific subjects—all quite relevant—from bivalves to the workings of electricity to the transmission of radio waves. I’d read Doerr’s The Shell Collector a few years ago, so was familiar with his expertise in that area, but was struck by the breadth of his knowledge about so much else in the physical universe, and the authority with which he integrates it into the plot. Everything is designed to fulfill its purpose.
It’s a plot-lover’s dream: complications, obsessive pursuits, twists and turns. There is much fear in this novel. There is also mystery. There are secrets and the clever ways in which they are kept, as well as how they’re prised open and nakedly laid bare.
In many ways Doerr’s is a story of the yearnings of the human spirit, as well as how those yearnings are dashed. You feel your heart ready to break at so many points.
Two remarkable books. Two masters at the top of their game.
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