Today, we are breaking boundaries here at Wildeonmyside. In this post, I will review not one, but two (yes, two!) books. ‘But why?’ I hear you cry. ‘Why change a formula that has earned you literally 7 readers?’ Well, dear reader, there are several answers to these questions. One is that I have read both these books in recent weeks and want to write about them. Another is that I had a dream about the MTV series ‘Celebrity Death Match’ the other night and decided this would be a great format for a blog. And, perhaps most significantly, I have literally 8 million books waiting to be read so, frankly, I could do with a few time-saving devices. These could, admittedly, include a shorter preamble.
Anyway, I’m going to simultaneously show off my mind-blowing understanding of literature and my brilliant comparison skills here, using a series of entirely arbitrary subheadings. Prepare to be so impressed you may need a little lie-down.
Round One: Plot
Up first in the all-important first round, it’s Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ which was published last year but prominently features in Waterstones’ Buy One Get One Half Price offer right now. The novel is set in Germany and France during World War II, following Werner, whose skill with a radio brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth, and Marie-Laure, a blind, French girl who is forced to flee Paris during the Nazi occupation. It is a total barrel of laughs, as you can imagine. As a school pupil, I feel like I studied this period in a huge amount of detail and so I tend not to seek out literature based in this time; I am, however, lending it to my mum, who is all over books about war, so maybe she will appreciate the plot and setting more than I did. ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff,published last month, has only one thing in common with ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ and I can’t even tell you what it is because it would be an epic spoiler; suffice to say, it is not its historical context. While Doerr’s novel is sprawling in its reach, ‘Fates and Furies’ focuses its attention on Lotto and Mathilde from their marriage at the age of 22 and beyond, while also giving the reader plenty of background to both characters. I enjoyed the more narrowed focus of Groff’s novel; I felt like it really allowed me to get to know and understand the characters, although whether that is a pleasant effect is another matter.
Round One Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’
Round Two: Characters
I developed a minor obsession with Mathilde while reading ‘Fates and Furies;’ during the first half of the book, we receive only Lotto’s impression of his wife, and even this never seems entirely satisfying, giving the sense that she is a true enigma. The second half, ‘Furies,’ gives us Mathilde’s perspective and it is fascinating. Last year, I wrote a particularly scathing rant about ‘Gone Girl’ (which clearly affected its success immensely) and its author’s ambition to make readers look “askance” at their spouses; while I didn’t feel like ‘Gone Girl’ had this effect on me, ‘Fates and Furies’ does a much better job of demonstrating the secrets that can lie at the root of a person and how even their closest partners can fail to really know them. Lotto’s view of Mathilde is that she is his rock: the good woman standing behind a somewhat less formidable man. By the end of the book, Groff has shown us the story behind this “good woman” and it is quite unforgettable. Lotto, however, is just really annoying.
What I think really works in ‘Fates and Furies’ is the split between Lotto’s story and Mathilde’s; rather than alternating between the two, we hear one then the other, allowing us to reflect on each more effectively. ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ alternates between Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories, only intersecting very briefly, with the occasional interruption of another character. Marie-Laure is the more interesting of the two; blind since the age of six, she has been forced to rely on painstakingly acquired knowledge, instinct and the love of her father in order to live a satisfying life. Doerr presents her with subtlety; she is neither a victim nor a hero, merely doing what she has to (and a little more) in order to survive. The relationship between Marie-Laure and her father is touching without being cloying and the introduction of more characters as the pair flee Paris only adds to Doerr’s depiction of Marie-Laure. I won’t do it here because it would ruin both books for anyone who planned to read them, but I think there’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between Marie-Laure and Mathilde, particularly in terms of the effects of their childhood and their means of survival.
Round Two Result: Draw (I can’t choose between these two fascinating women)
Round Three: That Magic Thing Which Makes You Love A Book
Although I obviously recognise that ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ is a tremendous book, it didn’t really do much for me. I think it’s something I’ll need to return to in the future when I am not in a never-ending race against the ever-growing TBR pile next to my bed; stylistically, it is beautiful and the last third is well-paced and both devastating and delicate. There is a subplot involving a weird magical stone which manages to be simultaneously the most random and most interesting thing in the book, which echoed ‘Indiana Jones’ enough to make me wonder if the ending would involve Nazis burning because they looked at a holy grail (sadly, it does not). ‘Fates and Furies’ was, for me, an easier read but also more interesting on a literary level, with the split structure and comments from an imagined chorus only adding to my enjoyment. The second half provided many moments which made my eyes widen and my cries of “no way!” frequently disturbed the peace of those around me.
Round Three Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’
Literary Death Match Winner: ‘Fates and Furies’ – hurray! Who saw that coming?
So, clearly I had already decided I liked ‘Fates and Furies’ more before I started. This was a fix. I’m sorry; I am the Sepp Blatter of book blogs. Both books are well worth reading – ‘Fates and Furies’ is shorter, which makes a difference to me, largely because it was easier to hold with my tiny woman fingers. However, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ did win the Pulitzer Prize so my opinion probably won’t make Anthony Doerr cry and add more references to ‘Hamlet’ to his future works.