Someone to Run With, by David Grossman

This is a fine novel from 2000 about two teenagers caught in the underworld of Jerusalem. It begins: “A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it.” The boy, Assaf, belongs to a poor family, and has a summer job with the city. The dog, a yellow Lab, is Dinka, and belongs to the teenage girl, Tamar. Actually, she has lost the dog before the novel begins, and on the opening pages Assad is following the dog as she seeks out her mistress’ former haunts.

We thus confront a simple beginning, but a complicated novel, complicated because its story does not does not flow in sequence. It is told in different time frames, switching us back and forth between Assaf and Tamar. And to compound the confusion that Tamar’s story has happened before Assaf’s begins, we learn in progressively slow stages why Tamar and Assaf are even doing what they are doing. Indeed, Tamar’s story has nothing to do with her dog. Dinka is simply with Tamar as the girl attempts to join an underground street gang for, at first, unknown reasons. In sum, it is not easy to adjust to the fact that the first story, Assaf’s, is actually happening after the story of Tamar, which soon dominates the novel.

And so while we begin with Assaf running through the streets behind Dinka, who is looking for her mistress, it is really Tamar who is the main character, as well as a more complex character. At first, we do not even know why she wishes to catch the attention of the gang, why she wants to be invited to join it. Slowly, we gather that she wishes to rescue someone in the gang and that she is desperate to do so. But all we know about this gang is that it is run by hard-nosed Pesach, a Russian thug who distributes drugs and sends young runaways out into the streets to perform and collect donations, while gang leaders pick the pockets of those who stop to listen or watch.

But Tamar realizes that the only way she can get inside the gang is to be invited, and so she offers her talent as a brilliant singer. It is a dangerous decision, for once you are in the gang it is difficult to leave. And we do not understand her decision to join, moreover, until she starts planning the rescue. And only when we know whom she wishes to rescue do we realize the reason for her commitment. Much less, the difficulty she faces in rescuing this victim who has been seduced through drugs into joining the gang.

Meanwhile, we keep switching into the future to follow Assaf as Dinka leads him to clue after clue in the search for her owner. And Assaf himself receives, like the reader, a tour of seedy Jerusalem and an introduction to a range of unusual characters. These alternate time frames are somewhat confusing for a while, but each teenager is so well drawn (Tamar, an extrovert, older and wiser than her years, and the introvert Assaf, an innocent confronting the darker side of the city), that both come alive in their world of self-doubt. And so well captured is the desperation of the victims Tamar finds caught in the gang, and so well captured is Assaf’s innocence as he encounters Jerusalem’s unknown world, that we are caught up in both their tales.

What is most remarkable about this novel is that the two main characters meet only at the novel’s climax. Otherwise, they do not know that each other exists. Yet in their yearning, in their search for fulfillment, in their idealism, they seem meant for each other, and the reader cannot wait for them to finally meet. But, of course, the entire structure of the novel has been created to keep them apart. They exist, after, all in two time frames.

This becomes a story of love on many levels. It begins with Dinka’s love of her mistress, as well as Tamar’s love of her dog. It is even more Tamar’s love of her family, since the main action of the novel is built around both the rescue of a loved one and her effort to weed him from drugs. And, finally, there is the burgeoning love of Tamar and Assaf, as each finds in the other what has been missing from their lives, essentially a tenderness that breaks through the hard shell they have built around themselves to survive.

As for love at the family level, it exists in both Tamar’s and Assaf’s family, even though a few do not recognize it. There is even love within the gang’s victims, especially between Tamar and her roommate Sheli. And Assaf has his friend Rhino, who will play a crucial role at the end.

That ending, in fact, is for me the only mis-step in the novel. It is too dramatic, almost soap-operatic, in its turn of events. In particular, its drama contrasts with the development of a tender relationship between Tamar and Assaf, a relationship that seems headed for love, until rudely interrupted. And I was not convinced by either that interruption or the fortuitous rescue that followed. At least, the novel ends on a grace note, as Grossman returns to the possibility of love. The last sentence reads: “Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.”

While some have considered this a young adult novel, the Germans even honoring it as such, it is also a valid adult novel. It simply has two teenage protagonists. And if the movement is fast-paced, to appeal to a younger audience, the novel also probes its characters’ interior lives as well as tension within the contemporary Jewish society in which they live.

Grossman has also been criticized for continuously withholding information from the reader. To enhance the suspense. To entice younger readers who are more interested in plot than in character. The Times reviewer Claire Messud writes: “As readers, we are being toyed with.” She also writes of the author’s manipulation of his two heroes: “Where are the parents of these young people? Why aren’t their surrogate guardians more attentive?… Grossman’s tale requires that Tamar and Assaf be independent agents in order that they may fulfill their respective quests and (inevitably) find each other.”

To me, this is accurate, but unfair. We would not have a story if the lead characters were not on their own. They would not have the independence that leads them to one another. Nor the recognition that they complement one another. We would have an adventure story without a love story. We would have a young adult novel rather than an adult novel. This is not Grossman’s only novel, incidentally, about the search for love. (September. 2016)

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

This 2014 work is a serious and ambitious novel. Its theme is the casualness and cruelty of war. And especially its impact on children, the innocent. It is a story of World War II, and deliberately focuses on one French child and one German child. Both are good children as well as innocent, and the point is that they suffer equally. For war is the villain, not the Germans, much less the French.

In alternating chapters, we witness the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is sixteen and blind, when the novel reaches its climax in August, 1944, at the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo. Werner is two years older, skilled at radio communication, and stationed in occupied Saint-Malo. Their meeting will occur only at the end of this novel.

These two children are helpless in the tide of history. But the novel begins ten years earlier, when Marie-Laure has just turned blind from cataracts, and Werner, having lost his father in a mine accident, is moved to a primitive orphan’s home with his sister Jutta. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the lockmaster of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. To enable his daughter to move around their neighborhood, he has built a miniature model of its streets, parks, and buildings. He also holds the key to the vault of a precious diamond, called the Sea of Flames, which is a significant plot element in the novel. Werner, meanwhile, is a sensitive child fascinated by radios, and he struggles against the brutality of his teachers and classmates.

Both are caught up by the war. Marie-Laure flees with her father as the Germans advance on Paris, and ends up in Saint-Malo, where her father builds her another model so she can move around that city. He also carries with him one of four versions of the Sea of Flames that the French have created to hide the real one from the Germans. Werner, meanwhile, has been recognized for his expertise with radios and has been drafted first into a technical school and then into the army. In the army, his radio unit serves in Poland, Russia, Austria, and finally, as Allied forces cross the channel, France. There this sensitive boy endures the horrors of war, but finds an understanding colleague in Sergeant Frank Volkheimer.

The reader knows these two children will come together, but both stories are so well and so sensitively told that he is rarely impatient. Doerr does create suspense, however, by opening his novel in August, 1944, with both Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in rubble after an Allied bombing. He then returns periodically to their dire situation, making the reader eager to learn not so much how they will meet as how they will survive. Not to mention how the fate of the diamond will affect them—if it is the real one.

That diamond is another unifying element. Legend has it that its possessor will live forever, but all those around him will die, and this does seem to account for the fate of many characters when one reviews the novel’s events. Indeed, the fate of the diamond itself, which ends up hidden inside one of the model houses, actually requires careful reading. Suspense also enters when Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been assigned to find the true diamond on behalf of Adolf Hitler. The sergeant is dying of a tumor; and finding the diamond will, he believes, enable him to survive. Suspense grows as each diamond he tracks down is a false one, and as he gets closer to finding the model house. But his own story is peripheral to the novel’s main story.

Times’ reviewer Vollman objects to the presence of this diamond, but I believe it is also a metaphor for the novel—for both the survival of some characters and the casual death of others. That is, it is a symbol of the permanence of life but the arbitrariness of death. At the very end, in 2014, the elderly Marie-Laure compares the electro-magnetic waves Werner loves to the souls of the dead of this novel. “[Might they not] fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?…the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” This is also the world, the light, of the title that we cannot see.

The major achievement of this novel is its portrayal of the blind Marie-Laure. We experience her life as she does, through her remaining four senses, especially that of hearing. But she is also a sensitive, intelligent, and brave girl, and there is a fascinating parallel between her own trapped situation and the trapped characters in her favorite novel, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. At the end, for example, she is reading it over the radio when she thinks she may well die—and it becomes her first contact with Werner, when he hears her voice over his own radio.

Werner himself, with his own sensitivity amid the cruelty around him, with his special skill with radios, and with his love for his sister Jutta, is a full creation, but not at the level of Marie-Laure. After operating almost an automaton in the army, as he traces illegal radio transmissions and sees those operating them killed, he is traumatized by the death of an innocent Austrian girl and her mother. Feeling guilty, he opens his heart when confronted by the innocence of another girl, Marie-Laure. This about-face is a major character transformation, but it works.

Doerr breaks two rules of novel-writing here, and both also work. First, he writes in the present tense. Proof perhaps that it works is that I was unaware of it. Usually, it is used to convey immediacy, but perhaps it is also used here because Marie-Laure is blind and lives in the present tense, in the world of her remaining senses. Second, the novel is written in the form of very short chapters, often two or three pages. But this blends in with the sense of immediacy, for once a scene ends the author is finished with it, and moves on to a new scene, a new development.

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more of Doerr’s work. But one suspects such work will be quite different. He supposedly put ten years into this work, and certainly it reveals considerable research to recreate the era of World War II, one retreat across France and another across Eastern Europe, and finally the description and the destruction of Saint-Malo. Indeed, the creation of the model neighborhoods within both Paris and Saint-Malo become another metaphor for this entire novel. (September, 2016)

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

This 2014 work is a perfect little novel. It is short in length and simple in its story of Judge Fiona Maye. But it is perfect in its structure and rich in its meaning. The richness is in its exploration of the justice that Fiona has to administer. And the perfection is in her personal story that contrasts to the blind administration of justice. An administration that must leave aside the emotions that follows Fiona down every courtroom corridor.

When we meet Fiona, she has been told by her husband Jack that he still loves her, does not want to leave her, but that he wants to have an affair with a younger woman, not least because he and Fiona have not made love for two months and he needs one more fling at ecstasy. She becomes very angry at this proposed betrayal, although we can see she feels a certain guilt at having ignored his feelings for the sake of her career.

And that career is a fascinating one. She is a British High Court judge who has been assigned to handle family disputes, and we are led to understand how deeply she is caught up in her legal career by following her consideration of two disputes. In one case, a Jewish father wishes to raise two daughters within his conservative community, while his wife desires a more liberal education that will prepare the girls for today’s world. In another case, Siamese twins are born to a Catholic family; and both will die, unless there is an operation that will kill one baby in order that the other may survive.

What makes these cases so alive is that Fiona evaluates both sides of each dispute, understands why different parts of a family feel the way they do, and balances the good and the bad that will result from her support for either argument. And, as a result, one is not sure of her decision until the time she gives it. Nor is it lost on the reader that while her decisions tend to favor the liberal side in each controversy, she confronts her personal issue with her husband from a more traditional perspective.

But while her dispute with her husband permeates her thinking throughout the novel, it is another family dispute that dominates this book. It concerns Adam, the teenage son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple. He is seriously ill, and needs a blood transfusion to survive, but both he and his parents say a transfusion will be against their faith, that the bible says God has decreed that no one is to allow a foreign substance (such as another person’s blood) to enter their bodies.

The novel’s title comes from an actual act of Parliament that all legal decisions regarding children must consider first the welfare of the child. And “welfare,” of course, can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the given situation. And a major strength of this novel is the depth with which this conflict between religion and the state is explored. Like the confect between religion and science, it is a common theme in McEwan’s novels. Indeed, the conflicts here, first with Jewish parents and then Catholic parents seems deliberate.

But each evaluation here is so balanced on either side that neither the reader (forgetting that we are reading McEwan) nor Fiona is sure what her decision is going to be. Whereupon, she makes a major decision that will join Adam’s issue to that of her own personal dispute with her husband. It is a literary decision, of course, by author McEwan, for two such major themes need to come together. But it is also a personal decision that will have a major impact on her life, when she decides she must meet the young Adam.

For she becomes attached to him as a person. In fact, she sees him as the son that she and her husband were too busy to have. And Adam, in responding to her attention, becomes more real to the reader, making her decision about him still more important. But, more significantly, he begins pursuing her, thinking he has discovered her love, whereas it is only her compassion.

And so the novel moves toward the resolution of the two situations: both Fiona with her husband, and Fiona with Adam. There is a certain contrast in those resolutions, but both do work for me. Not least because one affects the other. Other critics, however, have felt the original juxtaposition is too calculated, and not realistic. But I see it as the author’s premise. What would happen to this highly intellectual judge when confronted by an emotional situation?

I might also note that religion does not often come out on top in McEwan’s work. In Adam’s case, even a little irony is involved in his final decision. But because he and the people in Fiona’s other cases are treated so understandingly as human, I can go along with the outcomes here. For most of these characters hold to their beliefs with complete sincerity. What is missing from McEwan’s presentations are the religious reasons behind these moral conflicts, but it is the conflicts that are at the heart of literature, not religious rationales.

Where the critics may be on sounder ground concerns the resolution of Fiona’s conflict with her husband Jack. In this case, I was not entirely convinced, perhaps because it involves a shift in Jack’s response and also introduces a certain convenience for these two characters. But the balance it offers to her judicial outcomes provides a certain literary justification. She has caused pain in one character, and it is not in her to cause pain in another.

What has impressed me, but not other critics, is the neatness with which McEwan has created these characters and this situation. Not the logical reality but the logical balance. It is what contributes to the “littleness” of this novel, its simplicity. It’s a simplicity that recalls for me Hersey’s A Single Pebble or Edmundo Desnoes’ Inconsolable Memories. That is, it is not a complex work, but it has complex ramifications, in this case the emotional impact on a rational being. It is not about the conflict between religion and science. It is about the conflict within one person when those two elements collide. (August, 2016)