Friday, 1 April 2016

Book Club Discussion: All The Light We Cannot See

Welcome to our new style Triskele Book Club!

From this month, we will be hosting a monthly book club discussion around a novel that some or all of us have read and admired over the preceding few weeks. As writers, we often read books with a different perspective than many readers may have, so we welcome your comments and observations, whether you agree with us or not!

First off, we talk about All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

This haunting World War II story of a blind girl and an orphaned boy was selected as a 2014 National Book Award Finalist and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Ladies ... you've all read and loved the book. What were your parting thoughts when you read 'The End' and closed the book for the last time?

Jill: I wanted to start it all over again and learn from the subtle mastery Doerr demonstrates in placing plot and thematic elements with such grace and delicacy that the cumulative effect fits together like a craftsman's machine.
Liza: I did start it all over again ... the minute I finished this literary masterpiece that basically explores the theme of light: visible and invisible.
Kat: I have used the word 'exquisite' in recommending this book to other people.

There was obviously much to love throughout the book. If I pushed you to choose one thing - character, prose, location, plot - what would it be and why?

Jill: Probably the voices of Marie-Laure and Werner. Perceiving the world through their own experiences adds a unique sense of vulnerability and strength. There are echoes of John Boyne and Mark Haddon in their innocence but this book manages to tell a story of two characters' choices while reminds us of the vagaries of chance.
Liza: Ooh, that's a hard one, Gillian. I adored all of those things, but for me the flowing and lyrical prose stood out for me. At times it felt like reading a beautiful poem. And most of the time his descriptions transported me to that time and those places.
Kat: The language is wonderful. But I think it is the way we are immersed in the point of view of, alternately, Marie-Laure and Werner that is so beguiling. Someone said to me recently that voice isn't so much defined by the words a character uses, but by what they notice. Marie-Laure and Werner each have their own distinct way of perceiving the world and we are drawn into that, until we begin to inhabit their skins.

In terms of levels of difficulty, as writers we can see this is up there with the most technically difficult - multi POV, lyrical prose, tight plot, - what did you each learn that you would like to carry forward into your own writing?

Jill: Symbolism as both metaphor, facet of character and plot device. I can't give examples without spoilers but I will say the model house does triple duty.
Liza: I'd really love to master multiple POV, illustrating both sides of the same coin, as Doerr does. Also, travelling backwards and forwards in time without confusing the reader was brilliant.
Kat: In addition to the mastery of those unique viewpoints, I would say the management of the timelines, so that we see the story building up simultaneously from a long view and close up, giving a sense of both suspense and inevitability was deeply impressive.

That age old genre debate. What would you class this book? Literary? Historical? Or do you think this is proof that cross-genre novels do work and have got an audience?

Jill: For me, it's beautifully written historical literary fiction. Wonderful novels, regardless of genre, can be and frequently are literary.
Liza: From the amount of praise for this book, I think it's definitely proof that cross-genre novels certainly do have an audience, and that readers in general don't care too much about the "genre-box", they just want a good story. If I had to class this book I'd agree with Jill: historical literary fiction.
Kat: Yes, literary fiction that happens to be historical, or historical that happens to be literary. A page turner that is also told in carefully selected, lyrical language.

Research. This novel took ten years to complete. Ten years! I found the historical research and also the attention to detail when writing Marie-Laure's POV was nothing short of brilliant. We all know how difficult research can be ... what where your thoughts on Doerr's handling of it (as a self-named Yank who thought Brittany was in Britain before his first visit to St Malo!)

Jill: While reading, I was aware of the amount of information I didn't know, and the insight into that which I thought did. But rather than presenting facts, Doerr illustrates the impact on human beings. His craft is so perfectly honed you barely notice his skill.
Liza: Well if that's the case for this author, it just proves the point: "write what you (don't) know".  The story is obviously meticulously researched, however none of these historical facts are dumped on the reader ... it's all so cleverly-woven into the story you don't even notice it. But you come away from the book with the impression you've learned a lot about a whole period of WW2 history.
Kat: I knew nothing about what happened to St Malo at the end of the war, but as soon as I finished the book, I had to look it up. I was fascinated to learn that the city was rebuilt almost from the ground up, reconstructing much of what had been destroyed.

Could you ever work on a book for a whole decade? And do you think there were any traces of the length of time it took to write in the book itself?

Jill: Ten years is a long time but when the result is as rich and epic, I'd say it's time well spent. I'd be infinitely more depressed if he'd knocked this out over his summer holidays.
Liza: I'd love to be able to say "Yes, I could spend a decade writing a book!" but I can't. At the moment, I'm too impatient and need to see results quickly. I get bored with a project as soon as I think of a new one, and want it done and dusted, so I can start on the new thing. However, one day, maybe when I have the luxury of retirement (and time!) I would love to embark on a huge project like this.
Kat: Ummm, well, yes. Ghost Town took me 14 years to write! For much the same reason, I suspect - the need to absorb all the research that is necessary to make a story told against a historical background authentic, and to do justice to those who lived through it - but then the need to let go of much of that research and let the story shine through it. I wouldn't compare Ghost Town to All the Light We Cannot See, but I can appreciate what lies behind the long gestation.

The ending has caused a little controversy. Without any spoilers ... were you happy with the conclusion or would you have liked something different - maybe written it differently yourself?

Jill: For me, it was fitting. Life is a series of lucky, or not so lucky, happenstances. Trying to impose meaning on the present is fruitless, as is predicting the future. However, the final section does suggest we might learn from the past.
Liza: I was very satisfied with the ending. It brought the story forward into our years, suggesting the timelessness of its themes.
Kat: I would have been happy for the story to have ended in St Malo. But if we are to get a glimpse of the future at all, this feels like the right path for it to take.

Have any of you read any of Anthony Doerr's other novels? What are your thoughts?

Jill: No novels, but I did read The Shell Collector, his short story collection. His prose is extraordinary and acts like an X-ray of human emotions. This book I could read again and again just to admire the style.
Liza: Not yet, but after this book, I've put them on my TBR list!
Kat: Not yet, no.

Can you sum up the novel in one phrase?

Jill: A masterclass in structure, converging timelines and the balance between destiny and chance.
Liza: A literary and historical masterpiece that, through its reflection between two opposing sources, explores light in all its shades and forms.
Kat: A jewel with multiple facets, all perfectly polished.

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