Thursday, 3 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Everyone in attendance had enjoyed the book; we talked about the readable, engaging prose style, the interesting central characters and the fact that Occupied France and the campaigns on the Eastern Front as World War II narratives that seem to be less common.

Most people agreed that the interweaving of the two plots  was well managed and each strand was equally interesting, but that the jumping backwards and forwards in time and location added nothing to the book. We thought that a chronological narrative would have been easier to follow and would have told the story just as competently. We could never remember if Werner was in the basement of the hotel, in the Orphanage, on the Eastern Front, back in the basement again or at Nazi school because it seemed to change too often and didn’t feel particularly consistent.

We talked at great length about how well the author portrayed the gradual rise to power of the Nazis and how sympathetically Werner and Frederick (poor, poor Frederick- he confirmed what happens to people that don’t fit the fascist mould)  were depicted despite technically being Nazis. How Germany was ruined after the First World War, its citizens struggling to survive- then jobs began to emerge and prosperity gradually returns, thanks to these apparent saviours. People are eating meat again, manufacturing is thriving and gradually more opportunities become available…a frenzy of nationalism emerges, where you are either part of the frenzy or an enemy of the state. We really felt for Werner, whose intelligence and ability bring him to the attention of the Party and he is taken away for training at the most horrific soldier school. We talked about how many ordinary Germans there must have been that were either indifferent to the emerging Nazis or quietly opposed to them, but how ineffective and dangerous this opposition must have been- so they just went along with it. It’s frighteningly familiar. One day it’s not defending a neighbour or keeping quiet when a foreign accent is derided. Pretty soon you’ve got full blown fascism and we all know the rest of that story.

We talked a lot about the book’s other characters; we loved the PTSD suffering Etienne, trapped in his house with the badass resistance leader and long-time maid Madame Manec. The impressive, brutal super-German Volkheimer, a legendary, ruthless giant that trained and posted with Werner. Though he seems so unsympathetic, we really felt for the post war Volkheimer who had sank from Nazi notoriety to a solitary, grim anonymous life of a radio installer. We were universally disgusted by the gross gemologist von Rumpel and his disgusting overflowing neck fat and his obsession with the Sea of Flames

We discussed the diamond and all the coincidences that it had encountered since its ejection from the earth- unable to decide if it was a supernatural object or just another reason for people to fight each other through history- another trinket to own. Fate, coincidence and free will are pretty consistent themes throughout the book , exemplified quite well via the mysterious diamond.

It was a really enjoyable book that prompted a lot of discussion about the tragedy of war, good and evil, doing the right thing, virtual and literal entrapment and the generally interesting things about the French Resistance and other lesser known aspects of the Second World War. We seem to know all about the Blitz and Evacuees and D-Day, but it’s easy to forget the hundreds of thousands of other stories that exist of that time.

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