The Children Act: Ian McEwan


The glorydays of ‘Atonement’ are past.  McEwan spins out an entire novel out of a minor incident.  So did ‘Atonement’, one can argue.  However, the canvas was much bigger in ‘Atonement’, the novel spanned many years and there was WWII as the backdrop.  ‘The Children Act’ by comparison, is tame.

Don’t bother.

Lilac Girls: Martha Hall Kelly


Another WWII story, Lilac Girls, traces the lives of three very different women affected by the war.  Kasia, a Polish young woman, spends the best years of her life in a Nazi concentration camp.  Caroline, an American philanthropist falls in love with a French Actor and tracks him down in Paris only to lose him again.  Herta, a German doctor of humble origins, carried out horrific acts on the prisoners, without as much as a prick of conscience.  The horrors of the Nazi concentration camps: the indiscriminate killings, the medical experiments on prisoners, and the inhuman living conditions of the inmates are captured in their ugly nakedness.  I believe I have read too much of WWII to be shocked any longer,  but the story still touches you nonetheless. What I thought would be the strength of the book – the narrative continuing after the end of the war, including the Russian occupation of Poland – turned out to be the weak link.  The characters, particularly Kasia’s – gets a bit mixed-up and irrational.  The writing is not very attractive but the starkness of the story reigns supreme.

Read, if you are not saturated by WWII books.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North: Richard Flanagan


The Booker winner of 2014.  Richard attended the Writers and Readers festival in Ubud, Bali and spoke about it.  It sounded semi-interesting like most and then it went on to win the Booker (and I am sure making him a rich celebrity overnight).  The verdict: It deserves the Booker.  The Narrow Road traces the fate of Australians POWs who were tasked to build a railway line in Siam in WWII, amongst terrible conditions: diseases, atrocities and little food.  The story is strong, the scenes of disease, filth and beatings stark.  Takes courage and skills to write explicitly and precisely about those times.  The side story of Dr. Dorrigo Evans’ lost love functions well too.  The book bounces back and forth from the past to the present a number of times but the writing is so precise and all the sub-plots so interesting that it does not jar at all.  If anything, it adds to the charm of the book.  The only blemish, in my view, is the last seventy odd pages.  What happened to the Japanese oppressors and their life stories after the end of the war are neither interesting nor satisfying.  A summary description of their fate would have probably worked better.

Recommendation: A must read.

All The Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr


Not sure if I picked up too many WW II novels this year or if there has been a spate of them on the 70th anniversary of its end.  The setting is the same as ‘The Plum Tree’ and ‘The narrow road to the deep north’ but it is unique in that it traces the lives of two characters on the either side – a German boy and a French Girl in what the war does to their lives.  The canvas is bigger than just the war though.  The girl is blind, has a supportive father and a recluse grand uncle.  There is also a stone – a diamond – that is hunted by a German sergeant.  The German side is written very well – the slow indoctrination, the shutting to the outside world and the shame of the loss is captured very well.  The book is written beautifully, paced well and moves purposefully towards a fitting finale.

Recommendation: Must read.