I had the extreme reading pleasure of devouring Tony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah one after the other. They’re both epics about World War II. Nuanced, heartbreaking, gorgeous, suspenseful novels, both. Important, both.
The books themselves feature very different plots, and characters, but they’re both tales of resilience, enhanced with rich (and sometimes horrific) historical details.
All the Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of a young German orphan, who gets filtered into a privileged school for Nazi youth due to his skill with radios, and the sightless daughter of a museum lock-maker, who builds her scale models of neighborhoods so she can learn her way around by touch. Each is tested–and changed–by the world around them.
The Nightingale is about two French small-town sisters whose everyday lives are impacted by the arrival of the Nazis and the shift in the political currents. Kristin Hannah delivers a powerful message about how heroism comes in all forms, and the consequences of acting on principle in a time of war. I was surprised, and oddly grateful, for the horrors she put on the page amid this story of family bonds and community life.
There’s no sugarcoating in either of these novels.
Some pages were hard to read, certainly.
I don’t like intentionally shocking novels; I find that the shock, the horror, pulls me out of understanding the character, but if the shocks come after we know the characters, and love them, then my seatbelt is already on, and I’m along for the ride and can appreciate the bumps and unexpected turns. Moreover, I don’t want to get off the ride.
I think that’s part of the brilliance of All the Light We Cannot See: we know Werner as an orphan who wants to protect his sister. Where he goes, and how he becomes part of the Nazi engine, is perfectly rendered and in context. He has a good heart, and we know that from the beginning.
I’ve only read–and admired–one of Kristin Hannah’s novels, which didn’t prepare me at all for this gorgeous historical epic, newly released, which is full of terrible injustices and dangers and heartbreaks that she poured on to the page. What happened, what she allowed to happen to her characters, took me by surprise, the way the best fiction does, and in a way that felt totally true to the setting.
It was a pretty amazing experience reading both of these novels one after the other. However, it’s meant bad timing for World War II manuscripts that are coming through my submissions portal at Forest Avenue Press. They might be excellent novels, totally different from Doerr’s and Hannah’s, but those two made such an impression on me that I can’t pull myself far enough away from them. In several instances I’ve found myself comparing Nazi protagonists with Werner, and thinking about how even if a kind act is shown by a Nazi in the opening pages, that character is still a Nazi. It’s hard to be sympathetic. With Werner, Doerr avoided that issue by introducing us to him earlier in his life, and letting us see the inexorable machinations that pulled him into service by circumstance.
The bigger takeaway?
It’s all about taste, when it comes to finding the right editor or agent or publisher. And sometimes a manuscript hits at the wrong time for the person reading it. So take heart, and keep submitting, and keep researching where you’re submitting.
Across the board, authors who have taken the time to read one of our books or even look at our catalog have submitted novels that fit my taste; people who throw their books at us like spaghetti being thrown against the wall are most likely to earn form rejections. Sometimes, with all that preparation, and even hitting a person’s taste just right, you’ll run into an unforeseen circumstance; I’ve told our WWII submitters that I haven’t been able to get past my own reading, or see how at this point I could compete with those two novels in the literary fiction marketplace, but perhaps another agent or editor or publisher wouldn’t bring that same perspective, or would welcome a war novel.