This is such a good book. A real classic. When I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read loads of classics before I got on to reading any modern contemporary novelists, and this novel is as satisfying as a fat George Eliot or a Jane Austen, or a labyrinthine Thomas Hardy – although different, because modern. It’s set in the Second World War, and what makes this book so engaging are the two main protagonists, whom we meet when they are children, caught up in the engines of war. Werner is a gifted orphan, brilliant with radios, who lives in an orphanage with his little sister after their father went to work in the mines one day and never came home. He longs to be a scientist rather than labour away in the mines like his father. His gift for fixing radios brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of 6, lives in Paris with her father, who works as a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. The museum is Marie-Laure’s childhood and her education, but when the Nazis invade, they have to flee, in possession of an invaluable diamond. They hope it is one of the replicas to put the Nazis off the scent, but could it be the real one? We see the world through Marie-Laure’s “eyes”. Sounds, smells, touch and taste build up a kaleidoscopic universe full of remembered and imagined colours. These two children, caught up by war, are so engaging, and the whole narrative really explores the injustices which are always at the heart of life, both in war and peacetime. It’s a novel about humanity and hope, the little people against the inescapable machine of war – what it does to people’s lives, how it is in the little things that they try to exercise control. Werner is an incredibly gifted child, and one of his fellow soldiers says affectionately “What you could have been…” It is also about the importance and the power of radio, beautifully described. Werner and his little sister in their orphanage hear broadcasts from a Frenchman who speaks to his listeners about the beauties of the natural world, he educates, inspires and informs, and they have no idea where his voice comes from until foreign radio is banned in Nazi Germany, and Werner is forced to destroy the radio set he has lovingly repaired. Anyway, a great read. One of those books that will stay with me…
If you are out and about in Glasgow on 25th March
Come to Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival.
Anne O’Brien and I will be sharing a platform as the Queens of Historical Fiction. Our guests will of course be Mary Queen of Scots and Joan Fair Maid of Kent.
Looking forward to being there and seeing you.
Information and tickets here:
Landscape has always been very important to me. As a child living in a remote Norfolk village (with no motorway in the entire county, no trains or buses from our village) I learnt to be pretty self-sufficient. I developed the habit of walking the dog for miles while reflecting on books I was reading, or working on an ongoing inner narrative that might one day find its way onto the page.
It’s strange to me that I’m still doing that nowadays, but in a different landscape entirely. Instead of the flat marshes and misty fenland with its endless mudflats, I have the crisp clear heights of Scotland, but I’m still walking the dog (a different dog!!!), and I’m still working on that inner-narrative, some of which makes its way onto the page.
When I was a teenager, I hoped to be a novelist one day. It was my dream. Now I write novels for a living, but the reality is different to what I imagined it. When I was a young hopeful, I wrote to Anita Brookner telling her of my ambition, and she wrote back saying “A writer’s life is full of disappointments.” She had won prizes, published novels, had reviews in all the major newspapers and magazines. I didn’t know what she meant. Now I do… But the one thing which hasn’t changed, and which remains a constant is this deep abiding love I have for landscape, and for this landscape in particular… Scotland.
Every day I walk, and every day I find inspiration and beauty, no matter what the weather. A neighbour said to me this morning “Another lovely day!” He was being sarcastic, of course, because the light powdery snow had turned into a fine mist of rain, but I felt all elated and ecstatic after having taken photos of the sky and clouds… and I was looking forward to getting back to my desk.
I often have a moan about social media, but taking photos can focus the eye, make you notice details, and is a modern way of cataloguing, collecting and recording our own thoughts. What the camera cannot do, however, is capture the smell of peaty water flavoured with minerals and moss, and nothing beats the sound of trickling water coursing its way down the mountain paths, slowly shifting gravel, grain by grain, to carve a landscape. We need narrative for that… books, literature, prose.
In Norfolk as a child I was surrounded by slow fenland waters, and the sea. Here in Scotland the rumble and cascade of water is everywhere, but it’s different. It’s restless, powerful, scouring lanes through the rocks. But it was this landscape I first wrote about, and the one which gave me consolation. When I was a teenager, my family used to say “One day, you’ll take off with your typewriter up to the moors in Derbyshire or Yorkshire and find your own Wuthering Heights.” Well, it was a laptop in the end, (as well as a posh pen and a posh notebook,) and my Wuthering Heights lay waiting for me in Scotland.
The sigh of the wind in the treetops and the glint of a pale winter sun through pencil-thin trees are the kind of things I try to capture in my writing. For me, it’s like painting a picture – with words. It’s what makes me tick. If I come across a fallen tree in the woods, I try to imagine what it sounded like when there was no one there to hear it falling – the rending of boughs in the silence. But I never feel that I quite capture what I’m after. I never feel satisfied… as if there is one more novel, one piece of prose that will reach the standard I’m after.
I suppose in an age when the world is after a quick sell, I’m a bit of a conundrum. But I don’t care. I’m a philosopher always in need of a place of quietness, and I find it… right here, under my nose.
I value this quietness.