Two books, the second underscoring my thoughts on the first.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story follows a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a young German soldier, Werner, both of whom land in Saint-Malo as WWII is ending and the English are securing the French coast. The chapters alternate time and character so we see Marie-Laure and Werner grow up. They are connected by a radio program Werner and his sister listened to as children, records broadcast by Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne. The wonder of words and music making their way from France to Germany fascinates Werner who learns to repair radios and later serves the German army by finding resistance broadcasters. Marie-Laure meets her uncle when she and her father flee Paris and find safety in Saint-Malo.
There is more: Marie-Laure’s father is the locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History and when the Germans enter Paris, he and three others are given one of the museum’s most guarded artifacts, a one hundred and thirty-three carat diamond called the Sea of Flames. The stone is so valuable, three replicas and the original are scattered over Europe. A Nazi sergeant is determined to find the genuine stone.
From the beginning of All The Light We Cannot See, we know Marie-Laure and Werner are in Saint-Malo. Their parallel stories leading to August 1944 show how and why, each chapter investing the reader equally in Marie-Laure and Werner. I love this kind of reaching narrative, bringing characters to a single point. Doerr carefully structures to the book to keep the pace even. There is no rush to the end, even at the end. I read Doerr trusting he will tell the whole story.
The last part of the book brings the read to 1974. Questions left in 1944 are answered, not completely, but with the same graceful narrative as the first three-quarters of the book, each chapter following remaining characters and their overlap in turn.
All The Light We Cannot See feels like a many-stranded braid. This is how I read the book as a writer: knowing that I do not yet have the ability to craft a story that tells so many stories at once, each strand adding to the whole. I read the book appreciating the time and research Doerr put into the story. He spent a decade on this book. So I read wondering if I’ve got the endurance to stay with a project, let it go, return to it, finish it, as he did.
That part of the story – the author’s heavy work – reminds me of another book, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Another long project, well-researched. Please, someday, let me find a project I want to keep at for a decade.
Which brings me to:
“The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing And Life” by Ann Patchett. I will reference this essay again (and again) in the coming months, but let me first say that if you write, you need to read this. Patchett’s advice to writers is direct. After years savoring Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice encouragement, I started reading other writers’ approaches to the writing life. Practice underlies it all. But for more, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by Anne Lamott and On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King are two of my favorites. I’m adding “The Getaway Car” to that list.
Since I’d just finished reading All The Light We Cannot See, I kept thinking how Patchett’s essay emphasized Doerr’s craft. (Except in this: Patchett doesn’t like short chapters. All The Light is crammed to the ceiling with short chapters). On the whole write-what-you-know idea, Patchett says no, go ahead and research something new. Allow your research to compost (à la Goldberg!) so that what you’ve just learned comes out in your fiction as needed, not referenced for the sake of showing how well versed you are in German radio technology. Doerr’s technical references / explanations do not feel separate from the character narrative. As per Lamott and King, Patchett shows her willingness to keep writing as it is just part of her life, even when it doesn’t pay bills. Knowing a little of Doerr’s biography, I am glad he did the same, adding up the hours of practicing his writing craft to reach his latest.
Patchett is plain about the effort necessary to be a good writer, admitting the small luck involved in finding our way too. Go read it.