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What I've Been Reading

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan


This novella by the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, is a small masterpiece.  The story centers around Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, as he makes deliveries during the Christmas season in in Northern Ireland in 1985.  During one of his stops he encounters, at the town's convent, an ugly truth about the nuns' treatment of the unwed mothers who live in their care.  In spare, sturdy prose that is as rhythmic and sensuous as music, Keegan tells the story of this long-married father of five, a good provider for his family, a fair and generous employer who runs a steady, dependable business making an uncharacteristically reckless decision that will endanger everything he has achieved.  The reader is privileged, in this deeply interior and beautifully observed story, to see out of Furlong's eyes as he drives about town.  It is a third person narrative that chronicles a man's journey towards a dangerous action.   Central to this journey is his backstory.  Furlong himself was born to an unwed mother who worked as a domestic.  He never knew his father and routinely goes through the possible candidates, yet one evening he stumbles upon the answer when he stops to visit a friend and that information satisfies a hunger he's had since boyhood.
 
You can read the novella in an hour, but if you're like me, you'll want to read it a second time merely to experience, once again, the seamless transition from interior rumination to a final, irrevocable action that will unravel all of the seams Furlong has carefully stitched into his life and the lives of his wife and children.  Keegan's remarkable accomplishment here is the believable, utterly engrossing journey Furlong makes towards his decision.   After he has done what his conscience bid, he walks through the town on a snowy Christmas eve past all of the celebrating people.  It may be the most triumphant march in all of contemporary literature.  And because Furlong feels not just pure joy, but a mixture of joy and fear as he contemplates what might come next, it rings true. 
 
How does Keegan make us believe this change in a man's personality?  The first thing she does is establish the basis of Furlong's character, the circumstances of his birth and childhood, his role as employer and delivery man, and his orderly family life with five daughters and a protective, hovering wife.  But more important than that, is the quality of Furlong's perceptions.  He's a man who looks out at the world and sees details that a less outward-directed man would miss. 

It is the time of "The Troubles."  Money is in short supply.  People don't have enough to eat.  "Furlong had seen a young schoolboy drinking the milk out of the cat's bowl behind the priest's house...the dole ques were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn't pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their overcoats" (13).
 
One evening he tells his wife that he gave the young son of the town drunk his pocket change and a lift in his lorry and she replies, "'You know some of these bring the hardship on themselves?'

'Tis not the child's doing surely.'

'Sinnott [the boy's father] was stotious at the phone box on Tuesday.'

'The poor man,' Furlong said, 'whatever ails him.'

'Drink is what ails him.  If he had any regard for his children, he'd not be going around like that.  He'd pull himself out of it.'

'Maybe the man isn't able.'

'I suppose....Always there's one that has to pull the short straw'" (11).
 
The conversation ends there, but it's a defining moment because it establishes Furlong as a man who can feel empathy and his wife as a woman too focused on propriety to feel the suffering of others.  Though that dialogue may be the only time we hear his wife speak, it establishes her hardened nature, but in an elegant, casual manner, without making a direct statement.  The "one that has to pull the short straw" is all the reader needs to understand her sense of the natural order of things.
 
The conversation also sets up the essential argument between two intimately connected people, letting us understand that as Furlong performs the charitable act that he will never be able to undo, he is risking his marriage. The great kindness that was shown his mother when she gave birth to him means he cannot turn away from the suffering of an unmarried girl with a baby.    And because the woman who offered safe harbor to him and his mother risked social condemnation herself, Furlong understands he must choose the same path.  He will not be able to live with himself if he doesn't.
 
Though Keegan skillfully guides the reader, she is artfully indirect, always, providing clues in body language and detail so nothing interrupts an atmosphere of escalating menace.  At the convent, when Furlong knocks on the door, having found a young girl locked in the coal shed when he was making a delivery, the reader is shown multiple levels: the spoken words that convey one meaning and the body movements and facial expressions that reveal the opposite.  The Mother Superior performs a show of concern, even a false cheerfulness, yet there's no mistaking the warning snaking beneath her graciousness.
 
The powerful last chapter ends with a Christmas Eve walk through the snowy city.  When Furlong meets celebrating people he has known "for the greater part of his life"(111) he doesn't try to explain.  White snow and black coal are in dramatic contrast as he runs the gauntlet towards home.  He has done what he knew was necessary, but now the future is unclear.  Still, he carried "on along with the excitement in his heart matched by the fear of what he could not yet see" (111).
 
Keegan, Claire.  Small Things Like These. New York: Grove Press, 2021.
 
 

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

 
 

 

Do not miss Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, originally published in 1971, but recently re-issued by New York Review Books.  This stunning novel takes us into the world of the liver-spotted, fall-prone, lonely occupants of a resident hotel in London where well-heeled men and women live their lives out in what they perceive as upper-class dignity, avoiding the infirmities of old age because they are not allowed to die there.  If incontinence strikes, they are whisked off to a nursing home.  Only invisible suffering is allowed, and for most of them, that's loneliness. 

 

Mrs. Palfrey finds a passable life there among the five or six other elderly residents.  Her days consist of walks, meals, writing and posting letters to her absent daughter, and listening to and sometimes contributing sage or wry remarks to the conversations going on around her.  You might ask, how could a novel with such a sleepy plot and cast of limited characters create any emotional intensity?  Yet this "quiet" novel achieves tremendous intensity because people who assume they are closer to death than others possess an urgency those others lack and it's that liminal state Taylor writes about.

 

Mrs. Palfrey is well-mannered and socially skilled, yet she is mildly alarmed that she should be living in one of these places.  With daily lectures to herself that renew her courage, she manages to keep her alarm in control.   She is only recently a widow and neither her grandson, who lives close by in London, nor her daughter in Scotland have come to visit. 

 

Out for a walk one day to post a letter, she falls.  It is a residential neighborhood, the sidewalk is empty, and it has started to snow.  But in the area below her, a door opens and a young man who saw her through his window, comes to help.

 

"He took her in his arms and held her to him, like a lover and without a word, and a wonderful acceptance began to spread across her pain, and she put herself in his hands with ungrudging gratitude" (25). 

 

This is a long and somewhat awkward sentence, the string of clauses are linked by "and," which makes it mellifluous until those two hard 'g's in ungrudging and gratitude, break the flow.  They slow the reader down, and the awkward rhythm creates the awkward and ridiculous reality Mrs. Palfrey herself is feeling. She is not a woman who stumbles, much less falls, and certainly never in public, so she is new to this kind of neediness.   But the man rescuing her lifts her up and brings her to her feet, and she recognizes the tenderness that has been missing from her life.  The word used to describe her feelings is the more removed and polite "gratitude," but the reader knows better because "he took her in his arms like a lover" has already done its work and though Mrs. Palfrey is never anything but civilized and appropriate, she has fallen under the man's spell.  He takes her into his small ground floor apartment and as he ministers to her wound the romantic language continues:

 

"She was rather shocked by the sight of the towel, but this shock came too soon after a greater one to make much difference, and she submitted.  She was completely in his hands and glad to give herself up.  She felt no sense of outrage when he lifted her knicker elastic over her suspenders and unfastened her stocking.  Most tenderly he swabbed her and dabbed it with the dirty towel.  She felt no pain.  Her leg seemed not to belong to her.  He fetched a handkerchief from a drawer and tied it round her knee, drew up her torn stocking again and then sat back on his heels and looked up at her and smiled.
'I could make you a cup of tea,' he said."

 

It helps that as an American woman in the twenty first century I don't recognize these undergarments.  Knicker elastic?  Suspenders?  But even if I could picture this stocking arrangement, I couldn't miss the sense of undressing and lover-like ministrations.  

 

The rescuer is Ludovic Myers, Ludo for short.  He is a penniless, aspiring novelist, and as he is always looking for people and situations he might borrow for his work, he has brought her into his impoverished domain, washed the blood from her leg, made her a cup of tea, and then lets her gather strength and composure until she feels capable of walking out to the taxi he hails for her.  Mrs. Palfrey not only gives him money in thanks, but invites him to dine with her at the Claremont.  Scouting for material, and never well-fed, Ludo accepts. 

 

This is the beginning of Mrs. Palfrey's infatuation.  She lives for each Ludo encounter, her always circumspect behavior belying the intensity of her true feelings.  His youth and his masculinity have revived the ache of loneliness her husband-less condition has imposed.  And the physicality of their first encounter, when he held her to his chest "like a lover," and then tenderly addressed her wound, permitted forgotten emotions to thrive. The language of that embrace lets us see it from Mrs. Palfrey's point of view and although this novel is narrated in an omniscience that takes us into the points of view of several characters, including Ludo, the reader experiences the rescue from the perspective of this lonely old woman.

 

There is only one elderly man at the Claremont, misogynistic Mr. Osmond who tries to pal around with the male help at the hotel, whispering dirty jokes under his breath and very obviously sitting apart from the women who inhabit the lounge as they knit, write letters, or talk amongst themselves.  Gradually, Mr. Osmond begins to feel "an alignment" with Mrs. Palfrey.  It surprises him as well as the reader.

 

"During his time at the Claremont there had been no rapport with anyone--attempts at it with waiters, porters, even the manager, but all one-sided, the attempts forced on others, and rejected. Women he usually tried to avoid, but Mrs. Palfrey looked so wonderfully like a man, and had an air of behaving like one.  Trivia (one of his favourite [sic] words) she appeared to scorn"(125).

 

Sure enough, in this environment, his feeling of alignment with Mrs. Palfrey escalates into an obsession and he invites her to the Ladies Night at the Masonic Lodge where in a blur of alcohol fueled optimism and rage at being a widower he asks her to marry him.  It is a remarkable scene, funny and heartbreaking as two people at cross-purposes, Mr. Osmond awash in fantasies of a second married life, and Mrs. Palfrey, loyal to her first husband, gently reprimands and then switches to a firmer and more aggravated response.  And just as the reader felt Mrs. Palfrey's grateful acquiescence to Ludo's touch, here the reader feels Mr. Osmond's equally one-sided fabulist musings. 

 

"Mrs. Palfrey lifted a hand.  'Mr. Osmond, I beseech you: I shall never marry again'" (167). 

 

She can't be any clearer or firmer, yet he pays no attention. 

 

"'We could entertain in a modest, pleasant way.  Small dinner party, the odd cheese-and-wine set-to.  I've often read of them and wondered why we did not think of it in our day.  Informal, simple... a couple of decent wines, a Sancerre, maybe; or a Quincy--do you know that?  No, it's not widely appreciated'

 

"He seemed to be talking against disappointment, obstructing her. Filibustering.

 

"'And a red one...you can leave that to me.  And the cheeses, no old Claremont mousetrap or chalky Camenbert for us.  Black Diamond with a bite in it, a wedge of Brie, half a Stilton if we can run to it'"(168-9).

 

Taylor's blending of two vehemently opposed viewpoints in one dialogue is masterful and as in the scene with Ludo, the reader feels the claustrophobia between two people who are physically close, but miles apart in their objectives.  To reveal such opposed intentions underneath a surface of polite exchanges means that the writer has achieved transparency.  We can see that words and actions don't mean what they're supposed to mean because underneath, the inventive mind is creating a great, billowing fantasy.  First it was Mrs. Palfrey with Ludo, and then it is Mr. Osmond with Mrs. Palfrey. 

 

Because Elizabeth Taylor creates scenes that reveal the raging, raw desire below polite conversation, the reader is face to face with the grim realities of old age.  It is not a "quiet" novel.  Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont is about the madness of the restrained and civilized mind.   

 

At the beginning of their evening together, when  Mr. Osmond and Mrs. Palfrey drove off from the Claremont in a taxi, two separate people with their private histories, one was prepared with a marriage proposal, the other prepared to submit to a tedious evening, the jealous Mrs. Post stood on the porch and waved goodbye.

 

"Mr. Osmond looked out from the cab and raised a hand vaguely.  'I thought for a moment she might have a bag of confetti,' he said, then blushed, unnoticed"(162).

 

It is another Britishism, like knickers held up by suspenders. In England apparently, they shower newlyweds with confetti, not rice.

 

Taylor, Elizabeth.  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.  New York: NYRB Classic, 2021.

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

 

Until I read The Family Chao, my favorite novel by Lan Samantha Chang was All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (2010), a story about two poets who meet in grad school and maintain their friendship into adulthood, despite the very different paths their lives take.  It's a novel that explores intimate feelings about love, success, and writing as one poet, a humble and deeply private man retreats into a solitary lifestyle and the other, more ambitious and entitled, follows a career into the bright lights of literary success.   It is a stunning book, and for anyone interested in writing, it provides an illuminating glance into grad school where work and relationships are shaped in the high heat of extreme devotion to craft, mentors, and shared insight.
 
The Family Chao is another stunner.  Published recently, it has more links to Chang's first novel, Inheritance, an expansive, family-centered story set during turbulent times in China that ends with emigration to New York.  While The Family Chao is not geographically expansive like Inheritance, it is similarly centered on Chinese culture and family, in this case, Chinese American families living in the small city of Haven, Wisconsin.   It achieves the same intensity of place as All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, yet instead of a grad school dominated by a seductive and brilliant mentor, relationships are forged in the heated context of a restaurant dominated by the abusive and arrogant patriarch of the family, Leo Chao. 
 
Abuse is the theme of Chang's latest novel, the racial abuse experienced by Chinese immigrants that shapes their lives as they make their way in this midwestern city, as well as the constant verbal abuse Leo Chao heaps upon his wife, sons, and restaurant workers.  What one takes in, one puts out: that is how it worked with Leo Chao, and in this affecting portrayal of  the Chinese diaspora, Chang is additionally inspired to create events that are as suspenseful and dramatic as the best crime thriller, in this case, a murder and a trial.  Yet this is not a genre novel.   First of all, there are no guns.  But there is a weapon, and it's clunky and far from sexy, though it is introduced in the classic Chekhovian manner. Here the pistol hanging on the wall is an outdated freezer room in the basement of the Fine Chao restaurant. Everyone in the family has been inside it and everyone knows that the only means of egress is a key on an interior shelf.  If that key were missing, a simple errand to grab a few packages of frozen broccoli would be fatal.  That hasn't happened, and every year the code violations are overlooked by a compliant inspector.  When James, the youngest of the three Chao sons, enters the freezer, he is careful to make sure the key is there.  This is how we are trained, as readers, to expect deadly mischief and this is the means through which a low voltage suspense is introduced and then slowly brought to a boil, making this a novel that is difficult to put down.
 
The reader follows the trial through the eyes of a young Chinese American girl who is writing an opinionated, extremely unprofessional report for her journalism class, and this is another inspired departure from genre standard, but what keeps this novel firmly rooted in the literary tradition is the way the characters drive the plot.  The youngest of the three brothers is James and though the omniscient narrative enters the minds of all three, it is James the reader has a soft spot for.  He has returned from college still a virgin, the only child who feels tenderness for the father his brothers have turned against.  It's not because Leo Chao deserves his regard, more that James is an innocent.  He doesn't know how to nurture hatred and perhaps this is because James lacks the competitive edge his brothers possess in abundance.  In a rare moment of dialogue with his father he confesses that his only ambition is "to be small, to be a part of something larger than himself"(214), and as the only male in this family who professes any kind of humility, his character balances the volatility and desperation of the others.  He becomes the reader's touchstone and as he enters a first sexual liaison with a young woman he has known and loved since childhood, a dalliance of great tenderness and affection, he notices that he is beginning to change.  Every time he makes furtive plans for their next assignation, "he's aware... of a depth and cunning he never knew he had.  With each successful machination, he stretches the reach of his inheritance: Chao wiliness, Chao secrecy, Chao cunning.  Still, he's surprised when things work out"(173-4). 
 
James is a voice of calm in a novel where all the other males of the family speak and act with an intensity James lacks.   We watch Dagou, the eldest, cook an elaborate feast to impress his white girlfriend and show his father, who has retired from the kitchen, that he is the rightful heir of the restaurant.  And we watch Ming, the middle son, who early on escaped the racist confines of Haven, Wisconsin to become a successful financier in New York City, as he makes a frenzied appearance and then quickly exits from the family event that has brought all of them back to Haven, only to turn around and reappear again.  And though we have glimpses of the pressures that were heaped on these Chinese American sons as they grew to adulthood in this white, midwestern world, we also know the hatred that burns in their core: hatred for their father, a man who declaims with such rancor and venom every one of his words burn. 
 
James is the necessary cool to the overheated emotions of the others.  As a character, he is the counterweight that keeps the narrative balanced.  It makes me realize that every successful novel must in some way achieve a balance between these extremes: hot and cool, intense and calm, dramatic and mundane, and The Family Chao shows that one way to achieve this balance is through character.  James is the antidote to Leo's volatility, Ming's bitterness, and Dagou's frantic but brilliant cooking. 
 
Chang, Lan Samantha. The Family Chao. New York: W.W. Norton, 2022.
 
 
 
 

The Tenderest of Strings by Steven Schwartz

 

Steven Schwartz brings a fresh vision to issues of marriage and family in his recent fiction, developing characters that claimed my allegiance because I empathized with their problems and admired their determination to develop solutions that never compromised their needs and desires.  I began with his story collection, Little Raw Souls and then moved on to his just-published novel, The Tenderest of Strings.
 
In the stunning final story, "The Theory of Everything," a grandfather faces the loss of the grandchildren he and his wife have rescued from the chaotic household of their emotionally unstable son and his addicted wife.  When the parents claim their lives have stabilized, the grandparents are skeptical, but they lack the legal authority to keep the children. Inevitably, their son's household spirals into chaos again, and the worried grandparents search for a way to become the children's full-time guardians. 
 
The grandfather, who owns rental properties, has a light touch when negotiating the thorny problems that crop up with his tenants.  He is a wise reader of people and a savvy businessman, but no match for a problem of this magnitude.  The reader expects defeat when he asks to meet with his daughter in law, but this elderly man has devised a solution that will allow everyone to get what they want without shame or punishment.  It is a bold piece of action and a brilliant coda to these well-plotted stories.  And by well-plotted, I mean that events never feel arbitrary.  They are inextricably linked with the characters' habits and desires.
 
The Tenderest of Strings, Schwartz's new novel, is about a middle-aged couple, Reuben, the owner of a small-town newspaper, and his wife Ardith, the mother of their two high school aged sons.  Complications arise when Ardith has an affair with their close friend, the town's family doctor, a man named Tom who is beloved of many.  Tom seems to be above reproach in all aspects of his life; he is a great doctor, athlete, and an affable and easy-going friend, and Ardith falls deeply in love and becomes pregnant.  The reader expects that a divorce or abortion will follow, but Ardith has other plans, and this is why the novel is utterly compelling.  Each new plot turn raises false expectations and time and again, the reader's assumptions about the way people should act under the circumstances turn out to be wrong.  Ardith is such a memorable character she stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
 
Early in the novel, the reader sees why she's vulnerable to the charms of another man and it's everything to do with her daily life living in the chaos of the half-remodeled house Reuben is in the process of never finishing.  Tom's strong, affable personality attracts her because he's an orderly man who is firmly in charge of all aspects of his life, or at least he seems to be. 
 
In the same way, the reader also understands why Ardith makes all the unexpected decisions that grow from this affair, including the major ones, not to abort and not to divorce the other man she loves, her husband Reuben.  From one life-altering event to the next, the novel is beautifully paced and for fiction writers, is a great example of the ways character determines plot.  Ardith and Reuben take on the three dimensions of flesh and blood people because their actions and words are grounded in concrete experience.  The events that roil their lives, some of them becoming headlines in Reuben's paper, are similarly grounded in concrete experience.  
 
Early in the novel, Ardith is relaxing in a deep tub at Tom's house after lovemaking, and the peace and cleanliness of his environment soothes her as she thinks about Reuben:
 
"Despite his cries of wanting the simple life, he thrived on keeping matters unresolved, all of which offered him the familiarity of his angst and the comfort of entropy.  Things had to get worse before they could…get worse.  Completion was the enemy" (28). Her insight is significant and for the reader, makes the affair understandable.  But Schwartz knows that offering this abstract revelation is not enough; it must be felt through details that are realistic and specific to their situation.  We need to see that the affair is firmly rooted in her own desires and marital struggles.  Still in the tub, she continues:
 
"It was no coincidence that [Reuben] was a copyeditor, a checker of other people's work.  The truth was he couldn't finish anything of his own, couldn't set the same deadlines and standards for himself he enforced as an editor for others.  When Ardith went to the Sentinel and saw the fractured disarray of his desk,…it looked exactly like the house's torn up front and back porches with their splintered boards so spongy and rotted from the hot sun and cold winters that they sagged like foam rubber when you walked on them.  Bags of nails, lumber, rolls of insulation, drop clothes, cans of paint had all been delivered and stationed around the yard among the pried-up boards, the duct-taped mailbox, the rusted pipes, the ripped-out shingles.  Inside, displayed along the perimeter of the living room like a showroom for interior design, waited product samples: kitchen tile, cabinet doors, carpet folios, bathroom fixtures, and paint strips with exotic and inspirational sounding names like vanilla mirage, tangerine surf, and (simply) hope.  She had no idea where to begin.  They couldn't pay one hundred and fifty thousand to 'do it right,' or seventy-five to do it half-right.  So it would all remain in preparatory chaos.  Nothing would change" (29).
 
This list, so familiar to anyone who has lived through the horrors of renovating an old house, is well-chosen, and the entire picture, interior and exterior, contrasts with the comforts of Tom's house and is more revealing than dialogue or character-focused exposition.  The bags of nails and stacks of lumber, the sink and toilet sitting in the living room among all of the cabinet doors is the reason Ardith fell in love with another man, and because they're things I can see and touch and smell, I am there, fully engaged, ready to follow the surprising twists and turns her affair creates.  Moral judgement is irrelevant.  I've been so deliciously manipulated by the author I can inhabit Ardith's point of view and cheer her on.
 
 
Schwartz, Steven.  Little Raw Souls.  Pittsburgh, PA: Autumn House.  2013.
Schwartz, Steen.  The Tenderest of Strings.  Raleigh, NC: Regal House Publishing. 2022.

Ghosts of New York

 

Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis is an unusual novel because it lacks a central character and a plot.  Some might argue that New York City is the protagonist, but what engaged me more consistently were the characters.  The reader is introduced to many, most of them only for a short while, while others make return appearances.  What they share, across chapters, is location, and while most of these lives take place in what feels like contemporary times, some do not.  So, what gives Ghosts of New York cohesion?  Why is it appropriate to call it a novel?  And what is it, in this remarkable book, that satisfied my need for story?
 
 Jim Lewis is in love with people, their variety and unpredictability, and his sentences are precise; they probe and reveal like a surgeon opening that part of the body that hurts. I became intimate with each character's defining qualities.  Over and over, his insights into behavior felt true.   Never self-conscious or manufactured for effect, they were expressed in ordinary diction that allowed me to view the character in a private and endearing fashion.  Here are some examples:
 
"There was a slender silver chain around her neck, and dangling from it there was a cross, though just the very top was visible.  She was bare where it hung. He started to think of her lace and elastic, but he stopped himself, wondering how he had come to be so coarse—that wasn't like him at all—and wondering, too, if she could tell, if she could see it in his eyes, as she must have seen it in men's eyes all her life. He should be better than that: he wanted to listen to her, but the mind of a man in the first stages of love's grief can hear little more than want, want, want, like the pulling sound of oars in the water" (92).  This is Benny meeting a woman named Jillian.  Later: "His bed, now with double the weight on it, had ridden low on the night, like a boat in shallow water.  The smell of her skin was perfumed and powdery, with just the faintest edge of agreeable rankness; the smell of her breath was like a wet animal" (97). What appeals to me is the unsentimental tracking of a man desiring a woman, revealing the intimate things that snag his attention.  It is eavesdropping at its very best.
 
The following is from the longest chapter in the novel, and the only chapter narrated in the first person.  The narrator is named Mickey and he has just met a man named Johnny who comes from a tangled family history overseas.  Johnny is the speaker. "Everything that's best about this country is represented in its language.  Do you know what my favorite word is? I waited while he basked in anticipation, a little too long: Johnny always did have a bad sense of timing.—Sure, he said at last.  I love this word, he said.  Sure" (117).  At this point, the reader knows that Johnny is a formal person, a survivor of difficult times, more worldly and experienced than Mickey, and his pleasure with such a casual word as "sure" reveals his hunger for the easy life Mickey has in New York.  Mickey and Johnny are both students at Columbia and they frequent a "pitch-dark bar on Broadway and 125h street, underneath the elevated subway tracks….We called it Rusty's because that was the owner's name; he was a solid and slow man, Harlem born and bred, who poured shots with the parsimony of an elderly woman fishing in her change purse.  Still, they only cost a dollar a throw, and we got drunk by the thimbleful, night after night."  This is what I mean by precision: that elderly woman fishing in her change purse is not only vivid but, when held up against a Harlem man standing behind the counter in the dark bar he owns, it's also absurd, but that visual disorder is exactly what gives the description the specificity the reader needs to be able to feel his presence.
 
It occurs to me that all of the examples I've chosen are from the point of view of male characters, and though the novel is full of women, I believe there is only one, a photographer who roams the city at night taking pictures, who is also a recurrent point of view character.  Another who reappears, yet is never a point of view character, is Bridget, a woman Johnny and Mickey meet at Rusty's one night.  Bridget comes into Mickey's life in a casual way, but then settles in for the long term.  "There was a density to her, a gravity.  She always seemed to be standing with her back to a corner, even when she wasn't, because the corner was her territory."  Again, the mixture of something slightly off-kilter, the idea that someone gravitates to corners, combined with more practical words like gravity and density, creates a potent and visceral feeling about this woman.  Later in the novel, we will hear Bridget in orgasm, and it is truly a corner woman ripping out of a dark place and taking her rightful position in the world spectacularly. This orgasm has no equal in all of literature, I guarantee it.
 
It seems counterintuitive that a novel with so many unconnected moving parts, where the only stable piece is the setting, could cast such a spell, but these sentences, like the ones above that reveal characters in relationship to one another, have a quality of witness that stretches beyond the barriers of separate bodies.  Lewis' characters actively engage in the process of making connections with one another, trying to pass through the doorway into the other's life.  This is exciting to be a part of, and it feels especially nutritious now, in this time when so much human interaction happens in the flat space of screens.  But readers are always hungry for this, it's why we go to novels.  And in Jim Lewis's deeply felt Ghosts of New York, we follow the author's zig zag path from building to street to alleyway to park, going from one pocket of human activity to another, looking for the characters we've already met and want to be with again.
 
Returning to the questions I posed in the first paragraph, my answer is that the cohesive force that holds these stories together is the momentum created by chaos and disorder. That's what these lives mean within the container of New York.  Unlike other novels, the narrative doesn't impose meaning or order.  That's impossible here because the view is wider, the narrator more democratic, and the memorable opening and closing pages hint at something eternal.
 
Lewis, Jim.  Ghosts of New York.  Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. 2021.
 

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

The Women in Black is a favorite of Clare Chambers, author of Small Pleasures, the novel I discussed in my last post.  Published in 1993, it was Madeleine St. John's first novel and for me, an introduction to a writer I had never heard of before.   I was riveted by the end of the first chapter, quickly falling in love.  And since the first chapter is only two and a half pages, the spell happened fast.  That's because there were several embedded messages to me, the reader, within the dutiful discharging of a first chapter's traditional business, to provide the where, when, and with whom.
 
It introduces us to Goode's Department Store in Sydney, Australia at the beginning of a Christmas season sometime in the late 1950's, an exact year not given. The employees at that department store wear the regulation black nylon frocks the store provides, and thus, right away, we understand the significance of the title.  We meet two of them in these first pages, Patty Williams and Fay Baines, and we learn the name of the department they work in, Ladies Cocktail Frocks,  but first, we are treated to a vision of Patty Williams at home "washing out her undies in the handbasin that night" when she has "a sudden sensation that her life was slipping away with the rinsing water as it gurgled down the plughole" (1)…
 
And with that, here is the first message from the narrator: Dear reader, I mention the business of washing soiled undies on the first page because I want this novel to have the appearance of being about mundane concerns, yet, between you and me, that is not my true business.  The sentence goes on in this way: "; but she pulled herself together and went on with her chores, while the antipodean summer night throbbed outside all around her" (1-2).  Message number two: My characters will feel immense emotions, but when necessary, it will be my language that will express what they themselves lack the words to describe. 
 
Of course, this is always the purpose of a third person narrator; she stands slightly behind each character, helping him or her to put into words inchoate, difficult to express feelings, but here, the reach is so bizarre, undies to the throbbing antipodean night, we know immediately we are in the company of an unusual mind.
 
The narrator goes on to describe the department store's newspaper ad: "'I got it at Goode's,' as the caption said, on that insufferable drawing of a superior-looking lady preening herself in a horribly smart new frock before the envious and despairing gaze of her friend—the frocks and poses might change with the years, but that ad always ran in the bottom left-hand corner of the Herald: I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…" (2) Clearly, the narrator is opinionated as well as unconventional, and this irreverent point of view suffuses the pages, creating a humorous and wickedly subversive tone.    
 
There's even a third message to the reader; it's a subtle one but it gives a zing of pleasure if you catch it: the "I" in "I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…"  It is the only place in the entire novel the first person point of view appears; everything else is in an omniscient third person.  And what classic novel of female desire does this remind you of?  Flaubert's Madame Bovary where the narrator refers to himself as "we" only in the first chapter of an otherwise third person narrative. 
 
Anna Karenina, another classic story of a woman's struggle in matters of love and matrimony, is also in play as two employees are reading it.  And indeed, love and matrimony are also the concerns of The Women in Black, even though its narrator's humor dispels any partnership with tragedy.  Indeed, as she probes deep into the psyche of her characters, shifting between the lives of four Goode's employees, two of them in Ladies' Cocktail Frocks, one in Ladies' Model Gowns and a young temporary hire, a woman named Lisa who shuttles between the two during this Christmas season, it is also a portrait of 1950's Australian culture.  The narrator mocks and ridicules, and we have a sense of the provincial airlessness of that place in those times. And just as that "throbbing, antipodean night" is uncommonly paired with the soiled undies, Lisa, is paired with women who, at first glance, appear to be her opposite. 

When Lisa is introduced to Fay and Patty, the two women who manage "Ladies' Cocktail Frocks," she tells them she has just taken the exams that immediately distinguish her as a high school graduate of high academic standing and Patty, duly impressed says, "'You want to be a teacher, do you?'
     'Oh no, I don't think so,' said Lisa.  'I'm going,' she said, believing that she was obliged to offer a truthful account of herself, 'to be a poet.  I think,' she trailed off vaguely, noticing the horrible effect of her candour [sic]…
     "'No, I mean,' amended the confused girl, 'I'd like to try to be a poet.  Or perhaps,' she added, in the hope of deflecting Patty's amazement, 'an actress.'
     'An actress!' cried Patty, 'an actress.'
     And Lisa saw at once that she had only magnified her initial error, and that she was now suddenly an object of open ridicule; for the appearance she presented in her black frock and utilitarian spectacles, thin and childish, was so far from their conception of the actress that the two women both now burst into laughter" (30-31).  And here is another parallel with Flaubert's masterpiece: when young Charles Bovary enters the classroom for the first time, he is laughed at because of his ridiculous looking cap.  cap=poet.
 
What so delighted me throughout this novel is the tone.  In the exchange with Lisa, the artful phrasing, obliged to offer a truthful account of herself,combined with the dramatic paragraphing and punctuation, is the work of a narrator who wants to trash earnestness. Her objective is to strip each character down to her essential desires, to reveal the buried joy or sadness so she will be vulnerable, wanting, hungry to discover what, for her, is the path to something true.  And with the help of a Balkan-Slovak contingent, piloted by the saleswoman in Ladies Model Gowns, the formidable Magda, that's exactly what happens.
 

 
St John, Madeleine. The Women in Black. New York: Scribner, 2009.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

 

As I work on my next novel, I have been thinking about the many ways a writer can keep a mystery alive through hundreds of pages.  Clare Chambers' extraordinary new novel, Small Pleasures is a stunning accomplishment in that regard.  It is a limited omniscient narrative from the point of view of Jean, a middle-aged woman who lives with her demanding and tiresome mother and works as a reporter for a small English newspaper in a London suburb.  It is 1957 and a scientific study of parthenogenesis in "sea urchins, frogs, and rabbits" has just been released with the headline, "Men no longer needed for reproduction!"(3). Could parthenogenesis be possible in humans, queries the article. This prompts a letter from a woman named Mrs. Tilbury who claims that her ten-year old daughter was conceived without sperm and Jean, the only female reporter at the paper, is asked to investigate.
 
As she explores the woman's circumstances during the time of conception, which occurred when she was a resident in a nursing home where she was undergoing treatment for severe arthritis, each facet of her story appears to be true.  The first series of lab tests on mother and daughter and interviews with people who were at the nursing home at the same time, seem to support her claim and yet, unfazed, remaining open to possibility, Jean continues to chase each clue that presents itself.
 
The mystery of the virgin birth is sustained for the entire novel as the reader follows Jean along the path of discovery and the great pleasure is our intimacy with a woman who observes everything around her with a keen, questioning mind.  The reader knows that science will triumph eventually, but in the context of 1957 England, guided by a reporter who never misses a detail, what was originally a quest for truth turns into a deeply emotional experience for someone whose life seemed to be set in certainties: at home Jean is a slave to her mother's whims; on the job she is an efficient and dependable reporter and an easy companion to the men at the newspaper.  As proof that the story is true accumulates, the reader finds herself doubting evidence; it is a form of involvement that unites us with Jean's quest.  
 
The narrative moves at a slow pace and this is not a failing but rather, an essential reason the novel is so compelling. Details of Jean's life abound and because the core mystery saturates even unrelated details, including what she and her mother had for dinner (grilled lamb heart and mashed rutabaga) our senses are open and receptive and they stay that way for three hundred pages.  Not even a long list of picnic provisions, including the unimaginable kidney pie, can dull them.
 
Why are we so receptive?  What does Chambers do to keep her reader so attentive?  Interview after interview, lab test after lab test, each appearing to support a claim that must be false, gives strength to the absurdity, and what everyone at the newspaper assumed would quickly be debunked, appears sound.  There is a love interest of course, but it too develops at a deliciously slow pace, and that too adds to our investment in the outcome. 
 
I believe that what keeps the momentum strong is the type of mystery we are presented with.  It's a complicated one, spanning biology, myth, and Christianity, and tucked into it are all kinds of inhibitions and matters of privacy, especially in the world of 1950's England.  And because the mystery that prompted her investigation is so expansive, the ordinary occurrences in her life (soaking tea towels in a tub of borax before she leaves the house) take on a heightened significance.  We look for clues everywhere, even in the most mundane events, and when there is an interchange with hidden emotion as when Jean tells Mrs. Tilbury, "'I met someone the other day who wanted to be remembered to you.  I wonder if you can guess,'" she notices "a flicker of uncertainty" crossing the other woman's face, "a faint blush [rising] to her cheeks.  It took no more than a second for her to master herself and say, 'No, I can't.  You'll have to tell me'"(59).
 
Later, when they are on a first name basis and she thinks of Mrs. Tilbury as Gretchen, "a look of utter desolation came over Gretchen's face when she believed herself unobserved.  The fit of melancholy, or whatever it was, had lasted a few seconds; as soon as [her daughter] Margaret called her name, she had snapped to attention, rearranging her features with the brightest of smiles" (87).  Whenever Jean notices a lapse in her subject's confident demeanor, she tucks it away as evidence that there is more to this story than first supposed.  The lapses continue at well-spaced intervals throughout the novel, nursing our suspicions, adding a psychological depth that further expands the original mystery. Each glimpse of hidden turmoil acts like the Jamesian screw, tightening the narrative wire.  Close to the end, Jean herself is pulled into the family drama and loses all objectivity.  Another turn, the wire even tighter.  "Sometimes Jean had the sense that they were adrift in a perilously overladen boat; a moment of emotional turbulence would be enough to capsize them"(195).
 
When a nurse who used to work at the convalescent home asks, "'Are you sure you want this?' and Jean responds with "a now-familiar sense of foreboding"(315), we know there won't be a black clad rapist climbing out a window, only and more compellingly, the mistakes and foibles of characters we once thought were ordinary.
 
 
Chambers, Clare.  Small Pleasures.  New York: Harper Collins, 2021.
 
 
 

Improvement by Joan Silber

 

I've been rereading the novels I've loved in these last few weeks as I've moved from a rural location in western New York State back to Brooklyn, and in this post I want to discuss Joan Silber's Improvement.  Like Tony Doerr, she has recently published a new novel, but before I read A Secret Happiness, I wanted to re-experience her deeply satisfying and quietly brilliant novel, Improvement, published in 2017.  Some have called it a novel in stories, but to me it feels like a novel because it has a strong through line that links the characters despite disparate contexts that never fail to reveal a connection to the central character, Reyna, a woman we meet in the first two chapters of the book and then don't see again until 140 pages later.  Yet despite that, she does indeed feel like a central character! The extraordinary thing is that the novel's opening pages, Reyna's chapters, stick with us even as we're drawn into the stories of the other peripherally connected characters.  Contemplating the absence of the central character through most of the novel's pages, two questions occur to me.  Why are we so committed to her and why are we so willing to wait for her to return? 

 

Most obvious is that we empathize with Reyna and are deeply sympathetic to her situation.  We have watched her become entangled in an all-consuming problem that lacks an obvious solution.  It is the unfortunate outcome of a decision she made quickly, involving her boyfriend; she agrees to participate in an illegal money-making scheme and when, at the last minute, she pulls out of it, she alone carries responsibility for the tragic outcome that her defection caused. 

 

It's a burden Reyna hefts willingly, but her resources are as limited as everyone else's, and because she is the only one in the group of schemers who is a single mother, those resources, both emotional and financial, are stretched thin.  Reyna's chapters, the two in the beginning and the one at the end are the only chapters narrated in the first-person voice.  It is a chummy, friendly voice we warm to immediately.  The ad-hoc family she creates with her son and her boyfriend Boyd, incarcerated at Rikers Island when the novel opens, and her Aunt Kiki, a well-travelled older woman who has returned to New York after years of living in Turkey, older and wiser but still, like Reyna, living a humble, resourceful life, engages us.  Boyd (an African American) and Kiki (an older white woman) have different perspectives from Reyna who is a young, under-employed, white single mother, and as a result, their encounters are full of friction.  She wants things from them she is unable to ask for directly and that subtle frustration saturates the point of view: "Why in God's name would I ever think of splitting up with Boyd before I could at least get him back home and in bed again?  What was the point of all these bus rides [to Riker's Island] if I was going to skip that part" (23)?

 

Yet, after those two first person chapters, the narrative changes to third person and we meet characters whose lives are affected by the same tragedy that has shocked and stunned Reyna, or whose lives are connected to Reyna's solution.  What a magnificent balancing act!  Silber is a juggler throwing many bowling pins in the air, each one spinning in a different arc, expanding space and time and creating a community that is visible only to the reader who feels a kind of enchantment as she watches the circle grow.  And still the question persists:  when will Reyna return?

 

The cast of other characters is large and diverse, yet there is one thing they have in common: their problems can be solved.  We watch people come up with logical, thoughtful solutions to the situations that complicate their lives.  Even the more troubled ones understand how to get past their obstacles.  It is only Reyna who is stuck with the energy-sapping horror.

 

It is something Reyna can't discuss with anyone, especially her aunt and her boyfriend.  It is something she

must solve on her own, and so when we return to her voice, it's evident that while we've been away from her, she has been thinking about how to ease her burden, and just seven pages into the 27 pages of the last chapter, she arrives at a fix that won't change anything, but will, at least, give her peace.  It is both an anonymous gift to a person who has been harmed and a means of erasing the guilt that overwhelms her. 

 

But nothing is simple.  There are doubts and set-backs, yet by the end of this remarkable saga, Reyna has not only paid for the consequences of her choice, but the moral balance between her principles and the people she lives among has been restored.  The last chapter returns us to Reyna's casual, practical first-person voice and the irony of her victory, "Look what love had done even if it hadn't done it," expresses the slippery quality of her secret maneuvers. 

 

I ascribe to the notion that from the beginning, a novel sets a contract with the reader, meaning that if it begins in the first-person, it should maintain that point of view throughout.  It's not a binding contract, of course, nothing is in this business, but if the reader is going to go with an abrupt change like a change in the point of view, it shouldn't feel arbitrary.  As I contemplate a shift in the point of view of a novel I'm working on, I wanted to understand why Silber made the change and how she crafted it so that it feels utterly natural. 

 

But maybe, before I get to that, it would be helpful to address the issue of narrative distance.  People are always claiming that the first person is more intimate than the third.   Is it?  I don't think so.  A close third person point of view can achieve the same intimacy.  For an example, look no farther than Chapter 3 which is in the third person voice of Darisse, as she narrates recent events, both before and after the tragedy that Reyna inadvertently caused.  Our hearts go out to her; she is a woman who functions with such limited options her only bargaining tool with her patronizing, rule-wielding ex-husband is to offer him fellatio.  That is how she gains access to her daughter.  So, when she thinks, "A person as sad as she was shouldn't have to do this," we are right there with her, tangled in the weariness of her soul.  You can't get closer to a character than that.

 

Okay, then why does this shift in perspective work so well?  I believe that when the narrative returns to Reyna's first-person voice in the last chapter, it creates a change in texture that makes us feel urgency once again.  In terms of the novel's design, the first person bookends the middle chapters, making Reyna's chapters distinct, bringing her problem to the forefront where it overshadows the others. The bookends suggest that Reyna holds this community of people together, not literally, she doesn't engage with or know, most of them, but in the design of the novel her story gives order, importance, even, in a sense, a larger meaning beyond the specifics and details.  Mostly, it makes her distinct.  She is the center: inventive, rigorously honest, and unafraid of moral complexity.

 

The book-ending that the first person creates in this novel gives authority to the prose and that's why it feels right.  We don't question it.  When her voice returns, it simply feels like we've come home.

Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray


 
After finishing All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I turned to Sabina Murray's Valiant Gentlemen, another novel about lives impacted by World War Two written in the third person omniscient voice and narrated in the present tense.  But there the similarities end.  In Doerr's novel there is a satisfying neatness in the parallel stories of two characters who grow up in different European countries that will find themselves at war.  This symmetry creates a balanced narrative design that is not unlike the three dimensional puzzles Monsieur LeBlanc constructs every birthday for his blind daughter's fingers to explore, with their cleverly interlocking parts and perfectly smooth surfaces. 

 

Valiant Gentlemen, on the other hand, has a raw messy quality that is equally engaging and totally appropriate for a novel that is about the messiness of love in all its forms: requited, unrequited, homosexual, heterosexual, familial.  At the center of its vigorous sprawl across Africa, Europe, and the United States, is a triangular friendship between three historical figures: the Irishman Sir Roger Casement, his English friend Herbert Ward, and Ward's wife, Sarita Sanford.  As in any triangle, the love is unequal: Casement feels an enduring passion for Ward that lasts throughout his life as he takes up one political cause after another, first working to end the enslavement of African tribes in the Belgian Congo, then becoming a leading figure in the fight for Irish independence, sacrificing health and emotional stability as he travels across continents raising awareness, money, and arms.  The novel follows the life stories of these two adventurers who first meet in Africa where Casement falls in love with Ward yet keeps his feelings secret. The narrative moves from one to the other, and then, wisely, to Sarita, who understands Casement's predicament while Ward remains oblivious.   The friendship and the marriage are changed by the war and Sarita, as a character, grows in complexity, becoming, in the end, the most "valiant" of all three.  But it is always with Casement, flawed, lonely, betrayed, that the narrative gets its greatest momentum. 

 

I wanted to understand why, in a novel that features two other richly drawn, complex and interesting characters, he is the one who is most compelling, a magnet exerting its force even when we are far removed from him.  To find the answer, I examined a crucial scene.  It is 1889 and Casement has travelled to New York for the first time.  An elegant gentleman notices him standing at a hot dog cart looking confused and offers to take him to a restaurant.  Later, he takes him to a gay bar, the kind of place Casement has never been to before, maybe never even imagined, and introduces him to the regulars.  It is the first time Casement's attraction to men can be admitted, perhaps even to himself.  "At the end of the evening, when more drinks have been consumed than can be reasonably counted, it is Rourke [another Irishman] who leads the way past the urinals and into the back alley" (116). 

 

Casement is alone the next morning, lying in bed, recollecting the events of the night before. 

 

"There is Rourke, 'I'll show you the way,' and Casement following him through the tables, Rourke checking over his shoulder to make sure that Casement is still with him.  And then the marble urinals in a long row opposite the wooden stalls. And Casement is using the urinal, and Rourke too, although Rourke finishes first.  And then Rourke ducks his head down, checking beneath the stall doors, which are all closed.  Perhaps a stall is free?  But no. And then Casement is buttoned up, thinking they'll head back to the bar, but Rourke grabs his wrist and jerks his head towards another door.  Casement hesitates because he doesn't know what Rourke is on about and Rourke says, 'Fresh air,' and Casement says nothing, just wanders after him and then they're in the alley.  And then Rourke presses his mouth on Casement's and Casement can feel the man's stubble.  Then Rourke is unbuttoning Casement's trousers as expertly as he must handle his own and after that.  Well.
"At what moment did this happen to him?  At what moment" (117)?

 

In the passage above, he tiptoes through the memory moving from one connecting word to another, each and, each then getting him closer until he lands on that beautifully meaningless word well, that closes it all up again.  But first, it gives us knowledge.  And curiously, a more direct description of body movements or emotional reactions would not have been as effective.  The very ambiguity and meaninglessness of well forces the reader to enter Casement's mind and fill in the blanks, feeling, with him, the astounding nature of the very private and intimate act he has been hurtling towards, and at the same time, shying away from all of his life.  And because it is just so astonishing, he is unable merely to accept it.  He must interrogate himself again:  At what moment did this happen to him?  At what moment?

 

As the interrogation continues, he begins to understand the liminal space he has occupied for most of his life until that moment last night when finally, he stepped through the door. 

 

Forty pages later the narrator tells us that, "Casement, like most men, is built of a tough exterior and a tender middle, his constitution only remarkable by the extent to which his inner self is kept secret" (159).  That inner self is leaked to the reader bit by bit as the years pass, but it is this moment in the bar, his cautious exuberance as he recalls it the next morning, when the reader is invited into his most private thoughts: Well.  That one word provides the reveal by not providing it at all, making us interrogate our own imagination to supply the missing details and thereby linking us, in a lasting way, to this compassionate, selfless, deeply flawed human being. 
Withholding information from the reader can be a powerful tactic if used sparingly.  In a life-changing scene, if all is not revealed, the reader will be moved to use her own imagination to supply what's missing, putting her, very effectively, in the character's body where she will be inclined to stay.

 

In other words, less is more.  That old truism states it perfectly.  Less is more because what's not said invites the reader's participation.  Or, in the case of music (if I may switch art forms for a moment), it is like Duke Ellington's plangent piano chords in "Tricky Licks," a tune from an album I've been listening to recently called Jazz Violin Sessions with Duke Ellington on piano, Stepane Grappelli, Ray Nance, Svend Asmussen on strings, Ernie Shephard on bass, and Sam Woodyard on drums.  In many of the tunes, Ellington withholds while the others come forward to fill in.  In "Tricky Licks" he does little more than play a single chord at the beginning of each phrase.  But when that chord sounds, it contains the rhythmic tension of the entire phrase, even as the bass and violins unspool around it.  Those chords have the same function as Well.  They seem to be completely ordinary, nothing remarkable about them at all, and yet, it feels as though they contain the very mystery of life.  As a fiction writer, here's what I want to remember: Hold back.  Restraint creates narrative tension. 
 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  
Before Tony Doerr's new novel arrives, I wanted to reread "All The Light We Cannot See," his previous novel, published in 2014.  This time, I read it slowly, only a few chapters a day--ten or fifteen pages--enjoying the elements of a well-told story.  For any who are not familiar, it takes place during the Second World War and focuses on two characters, a young French girl named Marie-Laure, who is blind, and a young German boy named Werner, who is an orphan.  Their formative years are shaped by caring adults.  Marie-Laure has a devoted father who gives her the confidence that allows her to go forth in the world bravely and securely.  He does this by creating wooden models of their neighborhood that his daughter can learn, first with her fingers, and then with her footsteps in the outside world. 

 

Werner grows up in an orphanage for children whose fathers have perished in the local mines.  It is run by a French woman who is able to create a loving home that nurtures Werner's uncanny skill building radios.  On one of his homemade models, Werner and his sister, Jutta, listen to science lessons broadcast from France, a man's kind and patient voice explaining the workings of the world in phrases that will become touchstones of comfort, rolling through Werner's mind far into the future. 

 

During the siege of Saint-Malo, a coastal town the Germans have secured, the paths of these now grown children finally cross.  Werner, wearing the Nazi uniform, but an ambivalent soldier at best, rescues Marie-Laure and discovers the broadcasting equipment stored in the attic of the tall, narrow house that has been in Marie-Laure's family for generations.  He learns that it was her grandfather he and Jutta listened to.

 

It is this believable intersection of time and place that seems to be where the narrative, all along, has been taking us.  But for Marie Laure, the hours with Werner are only one memory dwarfed by others, and the novel's timeline, we discover, goes far beyond this remarkable coincidence.

 

"All The Light We Cannot See" offers many pleasures, but I want to talk about two in particular. On the macro scale, the narrative design is wholly suited to the novel's purpose.  It moves back and forth in time, building both dread and anticipation, and on the micro scale, the sentences, describing either interiority or action, peel open the characters' sensory experience at every step.  Metaphors are infrequent, but when they appear they are pointed and effective.  Here is Werner searching a radio dial for allied broadcasts of Nazi movements:   "....it's like reaching into a sack full of cotton and finding a razor blade inside, everything constant and undeviating and then the one dangerous thing, so sharp you can hardly feel it open your skin" (335).  When he hears Marie-Laure's brave broadcasting of music from her grandfather's old equipment, it awakens his imagination: "Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand--what sounds like three hands, four--the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed" (407). The cords of his soul not yet severed.... The reader has been watching Werner's moral disintegration, but this moment of self-reflection is when, at last, he throws off the Nazi yoke and rescues, and then falls in love with, Marie-Laure.

 

Why did Doerr choose to write this novel in the present tense?  And why did he create short chapters and a narrative design that not only moves back and forth between two protagonists, but back and forth in time?  My speculation is that it allows him to create an illusion of simultaneity.  And why is that important?  Well, it allows the reader to see how the characters' lives as children determine who they will become as adults.  This is true for all of us, of course, but a novel offers the clarity real lives never have.  We see how they are guided by what they learned as children, but more to the point, by who they loved.  Werner loved his sister Jutta, a girl who possessed a stronger moral compass than he did.  She asserts herself in his imagination frequently, her disapproving presence forcing him to examine his actions.  Marie-Laure loved the missing father who appears frequently in her imagination, giving her confidence.  And the illusion of simultaneity, created by the layering of time, reproduces the fragmentary and vivid experience of life. 

 

Though Werner and Marie-Laure are trapped in the dramatic events of the nineteen forties, they serve only as context and backdrop.  What the novel prefers to chronicle is the growth of conscience within Werner, the growth of courage within Marie-Laure.  These are quiet developments.  We're not at the front, or in battles, thankfully.  Doerr whittles the drama of wartime down to a couple of objects: this is clever, interesting, and most importantly, with the changing scenes and constancy of the present tense, a tense that erases the grammatical markers of time, they quickly orient us to place, character, and time period. So, when a new section opens with the lumbering Opel truck, we know we are with Werner in 1944; when it opens with a loaf of bread, we are likewise in Saint Malo with Marie-Laure.