Elly McDonald

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Review: Counterpart Season 2 (TV series, 2018) – 24 February 2019

I don’t usually like Season 2 of a TV series better than Season 1. GoT, Vikings… but often I feel as if a series explored its key themes adequately in the first episodes and left itself nowhere as interesting to go.

Counterpart S1 was a terrific series. IMHO, Counterpart S2 is better.

Episode 6 is a stand-alone episode providing back-story. It’s the pivot episode, midway through the 10-part season. It states the main themes explicitly.

In Counterpart, we visit parallel worlds linked by a derelict tunnel called ‘The Crossing’. The Crossing is a closely-guarded state secret on both sides. Most of the inhabitants of the two worlds are unaware there is a counterpart world, and counterpart selves, a phenomenon that occurred in an instant 30 years previous.

At first the two worlds continued on much the same trajectory. Then a flu pandemic killed hundreds of millions in one of the worlds, traumatizing its inhabitants and wreaking havoc with its economy and politics.

Episode 6 shows us how the split occurred, why the two worlds developed differently, and the origins of the flu virus. This sets the viewer up to better understand how we reach where we are: a grey grim world, a prosperous world, a spy state, a terrorist movement.

There’s an allegory here about our contemporary real world, as there always is in Sci-fi. How do we manage difference? How do we address historical wrongs? How to make reparation for ongoing grievances? Can it work to build walls? Is it safe to integrate?

These are obvious questions in a post-colonial, post-Imperial world. There are obvious historical parallels: post-War Germany; Israel and Palestine; Fortress Europe; Australia and its so-called ‘boat people’; the United States and Central America… to name just some.

At the heart of these issues is the question, can we ever embrace the Other, or is the Other always, irredeemably, a threat?

In an unfair universe, where advantage and disadvantage persist, and where one people’s advantage is very often built on another’s disadvantage, can the disadvantaged overlook the happy state of the more advantaged? Or will envy and a sense of injustice always result in retribution?

For that matter, can the advantaged be humble in their privilege and engage with the less advantaged in ways that don’t exacerbate the wounds and that seek to redress harms done?

These are questions that play out at the state level, at the socio-economic level and at the individual level. If I met someone who was just like me – in Counterpart, if I met my own personal Other, the Other with identical DNA, born into identical circumstances, the Other with whom I was One until that fateful split – and if my Other was faring much, much better than me, could I bear that? Who could I blame? What would it mean about me – both of me?

Counterpart S2 asks, if I met my Other, would there not be aspects of my Other’s life that I envied so fiercely, coveted so bitterly, that I might cross all moral boundaries to reclaim that for my self?

Can we share?

Can we play fair?

Counterpart S2 suggests the future of humanity depends on it.

Samuel_Roukin_Yaken_Counterpart_Season2_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Samuel Roukin as Yanek (when young) in Counterpart Season 2 Episode 6, ‘Twin Cities’. James Cromwell plays Yanek aged.


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The shark with my name on it

It’s edging
into the narrows
between the reef and rocky outcrops.
It inserts its proboscis
its probe
and smiles that smile that is not
a smile.
The shark with my name on it
quivers with instinctive
connective drive
Its pale planetary
eyes dilate.
Sensing my proximity
the shutters come down
nictitating membrane.
Better than an eye roll
a full body twist
a wink that says
silently
I’ve got your number.

shark_elly_mcdonald_writer


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Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

Update: I am humbled that Anthony’s sisters Sharyn and Suellen have invited me to read a section from this at Anthony’s commemoration, Thursday 27 December 2018. I am honoured to contribute.

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

One day late in 1979 I was walking along Glebe Point Road in Sydney with my new friend, Stuart Coupe, and Stuart suggested I should write for RAM, Rock Australia Magazine, my bible. He said he’d introduce me to the editor. So I went along to the RAM offices in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, to meet Anthony O’Grady.

The RAM offices were on the second level of a converted terrace building and were kinda funky. People who looked like they belonged in rock’n’roll were fugging up the space. Behind a large desk, with his back to a window overlooking Crown Street, sat Anthony.

Now Anthony had a very soft voice and pretty, feline features. He leaned back in his chair, with a guarded manner. He was watchful and maybe a bit irritated. I did not look rock’n’roll even slightly.

I could not hear a word AO’G said to me above the noise of traffic through the open window. I just kept smiling and nodding, hoping my timing was ok. Then I genuflected and backed out, cautiously.

That evening Stuart phoned me, to check that I was ok. He told me Anthony O’Grady had apologised for being rude to his friend. Anthony had, apparently, told me to fuck off. I had, apparently, just sat there, smiled and nodded.

Anthony said, “Anyone with skin that thick should be a rock music writer.”

Between them, I owe Anthony and Stuart the life I’ve led.

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

My first few articles he tore up. Then he took to slashing them with a red pen. He told me what to dump. He told me what to expand. He told me when it pleased. Eventually, he smiled.

About 10 years later, Anthony took several public transport connections from the north shore of the Harbour to visit me in Kings Cross. He was delayed, by about an hour, and we didn’t have cellphones, so he couldn’t text. Back in my first floor, terrace-house apartment, I grew antsy waiting. I went out.

I was not home when Anthony arrived and he was disappointed. It was a hot day. He’d travelled hours, at some inconvenience. He did that, he told me, because he rated me.

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

I met Elly in 1979, in my capacity as founding editor of the rock magazine RAM. Of the many writers who appeared in the magazine during my seven years as editor, I regard Elly as amongst the most outstanding. Her writing was always perceptive, it embodied the attitude that music could be more than satisfactory entertainment, it could be emotionally fulfilling.

She is that rare individual who combines sensitivity with pervading intelligence. I have never ceased to be impressed by her talents as a writer and the vivaciousness of her personality.

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger


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Untitled (2018)

I nursed my father in my arms as he died
spewing black blood.
Do you think any residue between me and you
means anything
alongside that?

I do a lot of death.
The ones who grow old
The people who don’t
Those who barely made it past the cradle.
I wait in the market in Damascus and
no one is unexpected.

I stand on a bridge and
sooner or later they all pass by.
I extend my hand and
welcome them.

Hello, I say.
I have a room prepared.


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Two stories: Yes; and The One Story (1 November 2018)

Yes

Caroline Christchurch sits in a hotel coffee shop, positioned where she can watch the door. Business people come and go. The men are bright-eyed and smartly dressed. The women are dumpy but game, with bright lipstick and over-bleached hair. Caroline notices this kind of thing. This is the way she thinks. How well presented are these people? And: how fast can they move?

A man enters. He veers towards her table, his head slightly inclined, his smile crooked.

He leans the heel of his hand on her table, as if to balance himself, as he passes. He winks. Where his palm was is now a USB. Caroline reaches out, as if in sympathy, and draws the USB towards her. Her hand shelters the USB. She rises abruptly and walks out the door, the USB enclosed in her fist. She walks fast.

Outside on the pavement, she accelerates into a slow jog. The streets are crowded – cars, pedestrians – but Caroline moves purposefully, effortlessly, and people part around her, leaving her way clear. This is how it’s always been. A tall young woman, long hair, clear skin. Long legs. Caroline moves through the world with ease, an actor on a film set, an action heroine.

“Whoa! Show pony!”

A man is in front of her, square on. A man confronts her. He is holding both her wrists, pulling her towards him. His face presses close towards her forehead, as if to kiss her. Deftly, he twists both her hands upwards. He unfurls her fingers. He palms the USB, slides it into his pants pocket. Still holding her right wrist in his left hand, he jerks her towards the revolving street door of a high-rise office.

She screams but it’s a squawk. She attempts a ju-jitsu wrist flick. His grip is firm. He has her bustled through the doorway, now in a foyer lined with lifts. A security attendant mans the front desk. He watches with only mild interest.

The man holding Caroline nods briefly at the security guard and steps her towards a lift. She stops fighting. Outside the lift door she stamps on his foot, spearing down on his arch with her shoe heel.

“Fuck that,” he says. He’s frowning.

They’re in the lift now. He stabs the button that closes the lift doors. He releases her wrist and steps back. The lift is lined with mirrors. There’s a small security camera above the door, in a corner. He addresses it.

“Check,” he says.

The lift is going nowhere. Caroline knows better than to make any move right now. She leans back against the mirror. Her brain works fast.

A disembodied voice speaks into the space.

“Miss Christchurch?” it says. “Caroline?”

Her eyes swivel upwards to the security camera.

“I don’t mean to alarm you, Caroline,” the voice says. “I hope you’re not alarmed.”

Jesus. She thinks, fuckin’ Hal the robot.

“I’m not alarmed,” she says. “Not even wired.”

There’s a pause.

“What we need is calm,” says the voice.

“We need calm?” she counters.

“Calm would be helpful,” says the voice. The man in the lift beside her is silent.

“You realise this is kidnap?” Caroline says. “Detaining me against my will?”

“We are not seeking to obtain advantage,” the voice offers. “This is in your best interests, Caroline.”

“We hope you will consent to meet with us, Caroline,” the voice continues.

“We are waiting. We would welcome a meeting.”

“Do I have a choice?” Caroline asks.

“There is always a choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will consent.”

“Here and now?” she asks.

“We’re waiting,” says the voice. “Level 24.”

“Yes,” she says.

That’s done it. She’s agreed. Was she coerced?

The man beside her presses the button for Level 24. The lift glides upwards. Caroline draws up her spine, lengthens her neck. She is dignity personified. She is scared to the bone.

At Level 24, the lift door opens, direct onto a large conference room. The carpet is a golden beige. The conference table is polished wood. The chairs are upholstered in chartreuse velvet. Caroline notices this kind of thing.

On the far side of the table, down towards one end, backs to the window, are seated three men.

Caroline pauses at the threshold.

“The father, the son, the holy ghost,” she says.

“Let’s not be dramatic,” says the voice. With the light behind these figures, she can’t tell which man spoke.

The men do not rise.

Caroline feels the man beside her reach his arm around her waist, his left hand lightly touching her left hip. He guides her towards down alongside the table, towards where the men are seated.

“Thank you for agreeing to be here,” says the voice. It belongs to the man on the left, the far end.

“We hope we can resolve this amicably. We hope we can help you.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“Please sit,” says Hal.

The man beside Caroline pulls out a seat opposite the speaker. He gestures for her to sit.

Caroline acquiesces.

“May we have your permission to record this meeting?” the man seated opposite asks her.

“Yes,” she says again. She thinks: This is a sales technique. Solicit agreement. Yes and yes again is cumulative.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” says Hal. “I represent a client. Not yours. Ours. A legal client.”

Caroline feels a surge of anger. Physically, she is paralysed.

“You unlawfully obtained something belonging to him.”

“No,” says Caroline, forcefully. She hears the italics and exclamation mark. “Your client raped me. Your client filmed himself raping me. Your client took something from me. Your client has no right to the record of that act.”

“I understand how you feel, Caroline,” says the man on the left. “But we need calm here. Emotive outbursts will not help anyone. Your perception of events is not reality.

“We need you to acknowledge that.”

“Why would I give a fuck what you need?” spits Caroline.

Three men sit opposite her. See no evil hear no evil speak no evil. The evil brothers. Marx is funnier.

“We’re here to help you, Caroline,” says Hal.

“We’re sure you’ll agree it would be best if that USB did not exist. It’s in your best interests for it to not exist.”

Caroline does not know what to say.

“It’s in your best interests to make this go away. We can help you. We can make it go away.”

A shiver runs the full length of her body.

“We can handle this privately,” the man says. “Calmly.”

“I want this public,” she says. “I want your client charged. I want him in court. I don’t care who sees the video. I want him convicted.”

“We don’t think you do, Caroline,” says the man across the table.

“We think you understand that is not going to happen. Nothing will happen you don’t want to happen.”

Caroline thinks.

“We have nothing to talk about,” she says. “Let me leave, now.”

“No one is detaining you,” says the man.

“You are here at your own choice.”

“Do you know your way out?” the man asks. “Sometimes people get confused. We wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

Caroline pauses. She glares at him.

“I can find my own way,” she says.

The light behind them silhouettes the three men.

“Technology is so unreliable,” says Hal.

“Here one moment, gone the next.” The voice is disembodied.

“Fuck you,” says Caroline.

She turns to where the lift doors are camouflaged in the wall. The man beside her is her shadow. He stands so close she can feel his breath.

The doors open.

“You can make a better choice,” says the voice. “We hope you will make a better choice.

“None of this needs to have happened. None of this needs to happen.”

Caroline steps into the lift.

Her shadow remains with her.

She presses the button for Ground Level. She presses the button for Close Door.

The lift descends. She can feel her stomach plummet.

They reach ground level.

“What happens now?” she asks the man beside her.

“Now you are free,” he says. “You are always free.

“Your choice,” he says. And he smiles.

USB

The One Story

They say every one of us has a novel in us. One novel. At least one novel, each.

Everyone has a story. I’ve heard it said there’s just the one story. One story each. One story that explains how we see the world.

So, let me see.

Depending on who I am, what would be the one story? The story of love. The story of loss. The story of transgression. The story of redemption. The story of malevolence. The story of deep, unending grief?

The story of forgetting? The story erased?

I’ve heard it said if we don’t tell our story, we can’t be known. If we don’t know our story, we can’t exist.

Can that be true?

I thought I knew who I was. That is, I thought I knew, until the police showed up at the door.

“Kylie Ambrose?” they asked. “Are you Kylie Ambrose?”

I said I was. Because who else should I be?

Kylie Ambrose. Fifteen years old. Bookish. Bolshie. A sharp-tongued virgin. Lives in the suburbs, with her dad and mum. Mixed feelings about school. Hates the classroom. Loves to learn. Some day, will be a scientist.

Rocket science.

The two police officers looked at me solemnly.

“Where are your parents?” they asked.

Then I felt fear, fear like vomit rising.

“Are they all right?” I asked.

“They’re fine,” said the male cop. “Are they are work?”

“You tell me,” I snapped. Smart aleck.

Outside the house, on the street, I saw a squad car parked. I could see another officer at the driving wheel. I could hear the crackle of police radio.

“Come with us, please,” said the female police officer.

I was cold in every limb.

“I’ll wait here for my parents,” I said.

The female police officer turned away and walked towards the police car. She opened the front passenger door, leaned inside and spoke to the driver. Then she returned.

“Your parents will join us at the station,” she said.

“It’s okay, Kylie,” she said.

The story of betrayal. Is it ever okay?

My name is not Kylie. My parents are not my parents. This is not my country. I will never be a rocket scientist.

An ocean away, a woman was waiting. My real mother, who I never knew.

Abducted, they told me. Me, not her.

I don’t know what this life is, but it isn’t mine. My story is stolen.

It can’t be recovered.

Suburbia


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Review: The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker – “I heard him before I saw him”

Judgement_of_Paris_Elly_McDonald_Writer

“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls

Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.

I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]

Briseis

Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.

Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).

The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.

Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).

In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys; the enslavement of women and girls; they won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?”

Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.

Trojan_War_Elly_McDonald_Writer

I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.

I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.

Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.

Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)

Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.

Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)

This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:

Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”

Good for her.

My problem is this.

Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)

Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?

After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?

Ajax_carries_Achilles_body_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Last word:

My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:

There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.


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All The Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr – how I learned to stop worrying and love the War (Doctor Strangelove moves in mysterious ways)

All_The_Light_We_Cannot_See_Elly_McDonald_Writer

This is not the review I prepared to write when I sat down a short while ago.

I have a friend, a novelist, who is skeptical about Reader Response theory: a literary criticism theory that focuses on how readers’ individual life experiences and beliefs shape their understandings of a text, as opposed to literary criticism that focuses on the author’s intentions, or the formal qualities of a text – crudely summarized, every novel a Rorschach Test, capable of being read in multiple ways.

My novelist friend is clear his intentions are paramount. His novels mean what he means them to mean. If readers take from them understandings that he did not intend, it’s a misreading.

I tend to differ. (Perhaps that’s obvious – I blog my individualistic responses. I gravitate to themes and issues that reflect my own concerns.)

I believe we will read the same book differently at age 60 than we did at age 16, or 30. We will read books differently depending on our emotional environment at the time of reading – what we’re dealing outside the covers of the book. Mostly I think of this in terms of life stages, but today I had an acute lesson in how what we take from a book can depend even on what’s happening within a given 48 hour period.

Lots of people deeply love All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was a National Book Award in the author’s native United States, a New York Times #1 bestseller (as the cover proudly proclaims).

I liked this novel. I liked it quite a lot. Some aspects of it I liked very much indeed. But as the final 50 pages counted down, I grew less and less enamoured. By the time I closed its cover, I was nonplussed. That night, cynical. This morning, irritated.

There was no question All The Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. For me, it was just that bit too beautiful, that bit too soulful, too sensitive. It made me long for a punk or grunge riposte.

Here’s my draft review, written at that time:

There are two types of novel, it seems, at present. In one type, the author is a ruthless god, killing characters who logic dictates must die, or killing just because s/he can. The other type is humanist, somewhat sentimental; hopeful refractions of humankind. This type tends to be American.

All The Light We Cannot See is a novel about WW2 written by an author from Idaho. It is indeed “Sublime” (The Times) and “Magnificent” (The Guardian). Oprah magazine likes it too. At this point, 100 pages from the end, its dual narratives are both peaking, its dual protagonists both in extreme peril.

I am confident the author plans to rescue them, or at least let their deaths have meaning.

[If you detect snark, you’d be right. I was saying the narrative line struck me as predictable – and implausible. I was suggesting there is a cosy fairy-tale at the heart of the handkerchief wrenching.]

I wish writers in this genre [the humanistic war epic] knew when to STOP, or when to strip it back: there were important points Doerr wanted to make in those last 53 pages [the post-War ‘Whatever happened to…” section], but for me they were 52 pages too many. [Man-Booker 2014 winner] The Narrow Road to the Deep North [by Australian author Richard Flanagan] had similar problems, in a somewhat similar project [in Flanagan’s case, addressing POW experiences in Changi and on the Burma Death Railway, then continuing to examine at great length what happened to his fictional characters afterwards]. To me it reads self-indulgent.

[This is a hard call. I’m certain both Doerr and Flanagan would say that the sections of their novels that deal with how their characters’ lives unfolded in the decades after the War is where it lives. They intend to examine the lasting impacts of war. In Doerr’s case, especially, his whole point is what lives on.

Me, I frankly wish the characters were left at a point of unpredictability. I wish we were left not knowing, required to use our imaginations to fill in the future – left, like the characters, displaced, facing an uncertain world. The ‘arguments against’ of course include the educative function of novels of this type (later generations don’t necessarily have the knowledge to imaginatively inhabit those spaces); the authors’ own preferences, their planned projects; and the outrage most readers would feel if these characters were sent out adrift – the t’s uncrossed, the i’s not dotted.]

Doctor_Strangelove_Elly_McDonald_Writer

I see in American writing a tendency to look back to WW2 as “the last heroic age”. There’s a valid desire to ensure what happened is remembered, and to cast the events as fables, as warnings. A book like All The Light You Cannot See is actually extremely effective in presenting aspects of wartime human experience and historic episodes, obscure [in the Doerr book, the Allied assault on St-Malo in France, and the Schulpforta Hitler Youth schools in the Reich] and better known (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The turn-off for me is the tone: all that effortful profundity; the wise, sorrowful voice, the self-conscious delicacy. Yes, it’s elegant, but IMO it’s overworked and kind of smug, the literary equivalent of an “Oscar bait” movie, a Manchester By The Sea. As if we read it or watch it to remind ourselves of how sensitive we are that we are so moved by the tragedies of others.

Also, embedded in the noble soulful remembrance of times past stuff there’s a wartime romp involving a sinister German sergeant-major and a cursed diamond, and frankly I came to be more involved in that narrative than in the cosmic significance.

[That’s not entirely true. I enjoyed The Adventure of the Cursed Diamond, as I enjoy a Tin-Tin comic, or a Madeline adventure – the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classics, not Proust – and I was amused. But the sequences in the book I found most affecting were those that traced the life of the young German, Werner Pfennig.]

The author IMO over-egged the “What you could have been!” waste of human potential till the novel came to read, for me, like a shaggy dog tale culminating in a one-liner: all that lost humanity transposed into a metaphor about radio and cyberspace communications – we/they as infinite ghosts in the ether. Violins played.

Indeed.

That was my draft review. What changed?

Here I was being a Grinch. The background was the lingering death of my sister and her husband’s nephew, who 48 hours ago was about to be taken off life support .

I did not believe in fairies. I did not believe in Doerr’s elfin blind heroine, Marie-Laure. I did not believe in her loving papa, her endearing (and miraculously healed!) great-uncle, her Mary Poppins housekeeper, her gently jovial mentor, her Man In The Iron Mask mysterious Resistance friend. I absolutely did not believe in her miniature intricately crafted plywood model of a town of 865 mostly medieval buildings (I could not for the life of me figure out scale). Not even as Magical Realism, I did not believe.

Then today, one hour ago, my sister texted. Wills is to be removed from his ventilator today, but not to die. He’s to be removed because now, it seems he will live.

Miracles_Elly_McDonald_Writer

I don’t know if there’s an author who planned to rescue Will (refer above). I do know that for his family and carers, Will’s death would have had meanings; as does his life.