Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 26 October 2017

And besides, I could never read a novel called All the Light We Cannot See

Low life | 26 October 2017
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Last May we had dinner with a comic who reads a lot and his wife. At one point, he told Catriona that he had just finished a novel that he had enjoyed more than anything he had read for a very long time and he would like to lend it to her. He disappeared into the house to fetch it, and returned empty-handed and cross. His wife confessed that she was reading it and hadn’t quite finished. His wife loves to watch telly more than read novels, so this was a surprise. And here she was refusing point-blank to give this one back because she hadn’t finished it. The comic was furious; she was obdurate. Catriona could have the book when she had finished it and not before.

A few days later the novel appeared on a bookshelf in the house, lying sideways. It was a hardback called All the Light We Cannot See. Catriona was busy all summer and didn’t get around to opening it. So it stayed there on the shelf next to the mantelpiece, at eye level if one was sitting on the sofa. When the book caught my attention from time to time I would despise it for its title alone. Never, ever, will I read a novel called All the Light We Cannot See, I thought, not even if I was paid to. If it were a book of Christian or Buddhist apologetics called All the Light We Cannot See, I might glance through it. But a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times ‘novel of the year’, never. I refused even to touch it. Once, with nothing better to do, however, I did pick it up and read the dust cover’s front and back, and its inside flaps. The Pulitzer Prize citation quoted there said the book ‘illustrated the ways, against all odds, that people try to be good to one another’.

Last month Catriona was invited to join a local book club. The first book on their autumn reading list, funnily enough, was All the Light We Cannot See, and she duly read it over the next few days. During that time she asked me several times if I would read a chapter or two. The quality of the prose was so completely at variance with the hype and hyperbole surrounding the book, in her ever so humble opinion, that she was desperately in need of a second opinion. She was anxious that if she said what she really thought of it at the book club meeting, she might make a fool of herself.

Over my dead body, I said. Then I said, all right, I’ll read a page. So I read a page. And then I went online and read an interview with the author. Above the text was a photo of this soft young bald guy. To his credit, he looked as bemused by his apparently inadvertent success as he ought to have been. The interviewer asked him, among other servile questions, what he liked to wear. He said he had lately been searching for the perfect wool shirt and had recently found it in a base layer purchased from an outdoor clothes shop called Icebreaker, and since then he has never once been cold.

The book club was an all-women, once-a-month affair. When they convene, husbands and boyfriends and whatnot meet in a restaurant to talk about anything but bloody books. So I went along to that. It was fun. The bloke on my right was another newbie. He seemed genuinely amazed that someone as thick as me should have wangled my way into such an august social circle. After the first course, he announced to the table, bizarrely, and apropos of nothing at all, that he didn’t mind what race or colour anyone was as long as they were nice. It was all we needed to know about him, apparently. And now he’d got it off his chest. It was the one solemn note of the meal.

Afterwards we returned to the house where the book club was meeting. Our various ladies were still seated at the dining table and seemed as happy and as lit up as were we gentlemen. I parked myself next to the hostess, introduced myself, helped myself to red wine from the flashy decanter, and asked her what they’d all thought of the book. ‘We all loved it,’ she said, pleased. ‘But it’s bollocks,’ I said. ‘Did you read it, then?’ she said, polite but unimpressed. ‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’ve seen a photo of the author and he looks like a total wanker.’ ‘But you look like a total wanker!’ she exclaimed, taken aback at rank hypocrisy taken to an altogether new level.