Sunday 23 October 2016


All The Light We Cannot See By Anthony Doerr 4th Estate (2015) €11.99 HHHHI

Maure-Laure is French girl who went blind at the age of six; Werner is an orphaned German boy with a flair for tinkering with radios who buys into Reich-think to avoid going down to work in the mines that killed his father. When she is evacuated to Saint-Malo in 1944, and he is serving in that very town, what are the chances that the two will meet?

Well, in a novel, they are certainly bound to - it is indisputably the point of fiction to weave together moments of improbability and make them resonate. Without spoiling, the pay-off isn't as huge as you might expect, but nevertheless, the journey to get there, and beyond, is the whole point.

Journeys figure largely (again, as you'd expect in a novel), and they are not all external (ditto). Marie-Laure finds herself unwillingly abandoned in the Breton town with her agoraphobic uncle, and Werner finds that his talents are being used in a way that he ultimately cannot live with.

The journey through the Second W orld War doesn't tread any new ground, and there's an aspect of moving back and forth in time that works well in the beginning, giving us heartbreaking glimpses of what is in store, but this device ultimately makes the slowing extremely slow. About mid-way through, it becomes frustrating and almost enough to make a reader put the book down.

This reader tried, and then the siren call of the writing drew her back in. Doerr has an extraordinary way with language, a gift of condensing imagery and emotion down to its very pith. Each chapter is short, distilling moments and movements to their rawest levels, even when the feelings are pleasure and joy.

This is not a sit-down-and-finish-in-one-go kind of read: sometimes, the events pile up too quickly to digest, or to gel, and a respite is required.

Things also get slightly bogged down by a third storyline, about a cursed diamond that may or may not be in Marie-Laure's possession, which is a pity, because the addition of a magical element lifted this above the usual WWII fare. Regardless, a satisfying read.


By Lorrie Moore Faber & Faber (2015) €21.50 HHIII

Speaking of short: short stories, as a form, are not for everyone. Speaking personally, they remind me too much of school: what better way to cram literature into young minds than with tales that are self-contained, and well, short?

And then I discovered Lorrie Moore in 1998, and her volume, entitled Birds of America, brought the short story game to a breathtaking high.

So, within pages of this latest offering, her only collection since that very one in fact, I felt the air go out of my fan-girl balloon.

One of Moore's shining qualities is her wit, her ability to find a laugh in the direst of circumstances, the ability of her characters to find something funny, no matter what.

Here, it seems forced, right from the off: Ira is newly divorced, it's Easter time, he's a Jew, he's at loose ends. So, what's he to do but start dating a woman who is apparently suffering from a mental illness and is clearly too devoted to her adolescent son. This makes me laugh in theory, but in practice, the situation he finds himself in is so uncomfortable as to be almost unreadable.

It's a testament to Moore's writing that one feels this level of unease, but unfortunately, without a little redemption thrown in, it ends up feeling perverse and manipulative.

Throughout the rest of the volume, we find flashes of her own special brand of brilliance, but not enough. They are also extremely disorientating in terms of time, harking back to events in America without giving us enough reference points: which Iraq war? Which Bush?

It seems too soon to be looking at these events historically, and between this and the general feeling of bitterness throughout, it is a bit of a let down.

The Possibilities

By Kaui Hart Hemmings Jonathan Cape (2015) €22.55 HHIII

Hemmings is the author of The Descendants, which I didn't read, but I did see the film. I have to say, all I remember from that is the image of George Clooney running through a Hawaiian neighbourhood in flip flops.

There's something there about masculinity on the run, or losing its dignity; here, there's a sense of young masculinity being utterly overwhelmed - quite literally.

Sarah St John works for a hotel TV programme, which is basically an extended infomercial about the ski resorts offerings and the local amenities in Colorado Springs.

Her son has died in an avalanche, and she's struggling with her grief. Her father has moved into the basement and her best friend's life is unravelling as well, but in the 'who's got more pain' sweepstakes, Sarah considers herself the clear winner.

When a young girl from her son's past shows up, Sarah has choices to make that will effect her ability to move on. If that sounds dry, it is, a bit. Hemmings has a wicked sense of humour that glows at the beginning, but a brittleness to the tone becomes more prevalent as we progress.

The twist, which is now apparently mandatory in every contemporary novel, is not much of a surprise.

The Other Daughter

By Lauren Willig St Martin's Press (2015) €26.99 HHHII

At first glimpse, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking this was a romance novel, or at the very least, a novel with a romantic view of a certain era.

Willig's main character, Rachel Woodley, infiltrates the glittering world of Britain's bright young things: the sophisticated, rich and spoiled generation of the 1920s, the ones that survived the war and were desperate to perform their life force, through parties and conspicuous consumption of drinks, drugs, frocks and affairs.

Rachel loses her mother and along with that, all sense of who she herself is in the world: her father, who she has thought dead since childhood, is in fact alive, and is a peer of the realm.

Out of spite and boredom, journalist and socialite Simon Montfort agrees to help her revenge herself on dear old dad by helping her to develop a bright young things alter ego, one that will bring her into his children's - and her half sibling's - social whirl.

Willig is not shy of piling on the tragedy, which makes for tough going at the start, and the brittle tone, whilst perfect for the time period, can be hard going at times. Rachel is a strong character, though, and keeps one reading on, hoping for her ultimate triumph.

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