Wednesday, 13 August 2014

I wanted to like this more than I did, but I found it overlong and the writing style too mannered. As if he's looking over his shoulder at the reader, saying, "Look, how I'm crafting this story ... see how I'm juggling all the threads ... admire my skill with words which is going to add at least 100 pages to the length!"
Oh dear, I suppose I'm saying I'd have enjoyed this more if somebody else had written it. Preferably, a sparer, more restrained European instead of a Best Young American Novelist set on writing a war epic.
I'm sure others will disagree with me; Darlene, for one, loved it.
Certainly it's a cracking story, set in Germany and France from the early 1930s to 1944 and the siege of St Malo. Marie-Laure, who has been blind since she was six, is the daughter of the locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Her father creates a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood so she can learn her way around the streets.
Werner is a white-blond Aryan orphan whose talent for everything to do with radios lands him in an elite German military academy where he becomes part of a brutalising regime.
As Paris falls to the Germans, Marie-Laure's father is entrusted with a beautiful but accursed diamond.
This review sums up pretty well exactly how I felt about a novel that was trying too hard ...
In the end, I skimread great swathes of overwriting and enjoyed it for the story.

So one wartime volume went back to the library ... and another came home with me. I don't know why I waited so long to call this in from another branch, as I've been wanting to read it for ages and despite keeping a beady eye on Amazon, cheap secondhand copies never seem to materialise. (Although what's the betting that I find one in the Oxfam shop as soon as I've read it?) Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war for the New Yorker (what a fantastic job for a writer!), cabling letters to America at weekly or fortnightly intervals. CP Snow said: 'To anyone who lived through the period, [the letters] bring it all back, as though one caught a whiff of brick dust and was transported to the smell after an air raid.' No present-day fiction can ever match contemporary accounts like this. 

August 13, 1944: Londoners who are back with their holiday tans report that the old bomb snobbery which used to flourish in the blitz days is once more evident in rural districts. Residents of tiny southern villages where, perhaps, a bomb has blasted a field and killed a few hens are inclined to be proudly certain that they are the ones who are getting the really tough part of the battle and deflecting it from 'those cockneys.' What is really tough for country dwellers, though, is the job of getting house repairs made, because so many local work-people have been drafted up to London to assist in the rehabilitation of the severely hit districts. The most serious damage in some little English towns has been caused not by bombs but by modern armies negotiating streets more suitable for knights in armour riding on palfreys. The battered Saxon bridges and sagging Tudor doorways which record the progress of skidding British tanks and American trucks through the countryside will keep the local bricklayers busy for a long time after they get back from London.

Hollow laugh as, 70 years later exactly, I've spent all day waiting for London workmen who haven't shown up. I'm taking the philosophical view that at least the unpleasant leak in the bathroom wasn't caused by a bomb.

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