Book Review: All the Light There Was
By Nancy Kricorian
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
The delicate, soft-spoken love story at the heart of Nancy Kricorian’s affecting novel All the Light There Was has a frightful deadweight of tragedy to overcome. The book’s setting is Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion, but our central characters – all members of a community of Armenian refugees who fled the genocide in their homeland – have only just settled in their new country when it’s overrun by a power as merciless as the one they left behind.
Caught between these two immense tragedies are a group of young people much the same as a reader might find in any novel: there’s fourteen-year-old Maral Pegorian, her heroic brother Missak, her boyfriend Zaven, the love of her life, and Zaven’s brother Barkev. While their parents and family friends are dealing with degrading new rules, drastic food rationing, and all the subtle, smaller signs of oppression (which Kricorian describes with understated vividness), these young people are at first just trying to go about their normal lives. The Nazi oppression quickly makes itself felt in all aspects of their lives, however, and Kricorian narrates it all with a curious and at times very effective mixture of warmth and stark detail:
When we returned to school that fall, the noticeable absence of Mademoiselle Levy, the beloved Latin and Greek teacher who had been dismissed because she was a Jew, had upset us all, but our dismay had been muted. We found out after the war that Mademoiselle Levy had joined the Resistance soon after leaving us and that eventually the Nazis had decapitated her with an axe in Germany.
The book takes no stylistic or narrative risks; this is as comfortable and reading-group friendly as any book on brutal Nazi occupation can be, focused mainly on how tyranny redounds to the domestic scene. We see the deepening sacrifices Maral’s family must make simply in order to keep surviving, and we feel their growing simmer of outrage (“It’s like something out of the Middle Ages,” they say when they see the yellow badges their Jewish neighbors must sew onto their clothing, “How can this be happening in the twentieth century?”).
Zaven and Barkev are eventually apprehended by the Germans and sent to Buchenwald, from which only one returns. Readers of bantam-weight historical romances like this one will have no difficulty guessing which brother returns, and what happens after that. But there’s ample compensation for the conventionalities of the plot: Kricorian’s dialogue is wonderfully simple and believable; Maral’s two love affairs are drawn with shimmering, subtle fidelity, and best of all Maral herself is a fixedly memorable character, full of humor and a refreshing lack of prudery. Long-time readers of historical fiction will feel a bit put through their paces – in everything except the setting, this is a novel they’ve read before – but newcomers to the time period will find a wealth of fascinating details here. And Maral herself would be fascinating in any time period.