After the last book I reviewed here, Just Babies, I’ve been thinking a lot about how art and literature can define and challenge our concepts of good and evil, right and wrong. I’m going to approach the subsequent two books I’ve read and one movie I’ve seen (I don’t go out much) from that angle.
My book group will be discussing All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Simon & Schuster, 2014) this coming weekend. It is certainly a novel that deserves all the praise heaped upon it! The writing is outstanding, with a structure that keeps you curious and engaged and language that captures everything from a gesture felt but not seen to the whorls of a seashell. The characters are finely drawn and convincing. Initially, I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about reading it. I’m pretty much “over” the World War II genre. But Doerr accomplishes a rare feat in this book, that of making you see the nuances of both sides of the epic good versus bad narrative of so much fiction set in that period. The two main characters are a German boy swept up in the rise of the Nazis and a blind French girl who ends up active in the Resistance. Their fates intertwine at the end of the novel in a startling and original way. So much of the literature about right and wrong ultimately ends up being about redemption, and this novel at its core has a strong message about both the capacity for good and evil in each person and the power of atonement. Here’s perhaps the best recommendation for this book: my husband, who doesn’t read fiction, read the first few pages and now is completely engrossed!
Because of the WWII setting and the central role of radio in both, an intriguing companion to this novel is the movie The Imitation Game. My husband has a strong interest in military history and really wanted to see this, so off we headed to a matinée (since they’re cheaper…) This is another widely praised work of art truly deserving of its acclaim. The acting is outstanding, the story about how a group of mathematicians broke the German Enigma code is fascinating, and the way the movie subtly challenges our evolving definitions of right and wrong (homosexuality in this case) is powerful.
A completely different and equally excellent novel I just finished reading is A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (Random House, 2015). I love Tyler, not least because I so often see facets of myself reflected in her fiction. If All the Light We Cannot See and The Imitation Game explore morality against the grandiose backdrop of war and upheaval, this gentle novel takes us into one family and one house in Baltimore. The setting and characters are deceptively simple, but at the end you realize that you have been completely immersed in all the complexities of this family and its story. Through capturing the quiet moments and big upheavals of everyday life, Tyler illuminates the subtle choices “ordinary” people make. Her grasp of human nature and family dynamics is uncanny. The beginning of A Spool of Blue Thread introduces us to a central conflict in this family, that of a troubled and troubling son who disappears for long periods of time. Consider this beautiful prose:
But still, you know how it is when you’re missing a loved one. You try to turn every stranger into the person you were hoping for. You hear a certain piece of music and right away you tell yourself that he could have changed his clothing style, could have gained a ton of weight, could have acquired a car and then parked the car in front of another family’s house. “It’s him!” you say. “He came! We knew he would; we always…” But then you hear how pathetic you sound, and your words trail off into silence, and your heart breaks.
This has been my experience every Christmas since my son moved away…
I have been exceptionally fortunate in my life. In the grand scheme of human history, I have lived a privileged, comfortable existence. I have never had to make awful choices while bombers screamed overhead. I have never had society judge me based on who I chose to love. But I have struggled with the daily dilemma of treating my family and friends fairly and kindly, of trying to do some good in the world, and of limiting and/or atoning for the harm I might inadvertently do.