This novel, like a teenage relationship, took me from love to loathing in the space of two weeks. Part one was fabulous. (I apologise to friends to whom I prematurely recommended this book). David Winkler, a character whose naivety and social ineptness makes Dostoevsky’s Idiot appear like Machiavelli and Lord Byron forged into one, has prophetic dreams. He dreams of a fatal accident to a stranger and then watches it happen days later exactly as he dreamt it. He then dreams a meeting with a woman he loves. He meets her and wins her, even though she is married. The writing early on is so good it’s a piece of cake to suspend disbelief. They have a child, Grace. He then dreams that Grace dies in his arms in a flood. When the flood arrives Winkler decides the only way to save her is for him to vanish so she cannot die in his arms as she did in his dream. Without any explanation he therefore leaves his family and catches a boat to St Vincent. His actions by now have alienated us from any sympathy or understanding of him. He’s become emotionally incomprehensible. And he will remain emotionally incomprehensible throughout the book. He’s become, in fact, more a plot device than a believable character. He does what Doerr needs him to do to keep the plot ticking over. When any normal human being would talk he stays mute; when any normal human being would act he bangs his head against a wall. He spends so much time banging his head against walls that you begin to feel a dull pain in your own forehead. Maybe Doerr is making a point about the inability of males to talk about their private feelings and fears? But whatever point he’s making it becomes more and more laboured. Suspension of disbelief starts becoming a real problem.
In St Vincent he befriends a family and becomes a surrogate father to a little girl. He dreams she dies too. But by now there’s so much superfluous weight to this book that it’s wobbling and wheezing along, all trace of any bone structure hidden beneath fold upon fold of fat. There’s more nature description in this book than any 19th century novel. Everything within eyesight is described – ironic as Winkler is severely short sighted. There are entire chapters that wouldn’t be remotely missed if they were cut. Quite a few of ‘em. And Doerr’s writing becomes more and more self-indulgent and whimsical as the book progresses. Often it’s like reading a rehearsal of a novel rather than a novel itself. Maybe if an editor had cut it down to 250 pages….
There are parallels with All the Light We Cannot See. All the Light didn’t really have much plot beyond a basic fairy story floorplan (all the genius was in the beautiful economy of the prose and the artistry with which all its elements were integrated) and About Grace is the same. Two characters are separated and we wait for them to meet. The characters here also have a passion for specialised natural science subjects. Winkler is obsessed with snow crystals (boy, does this get tiresome!) And the surrogate daughter is studying insects. These interests in the natural world though are clumsily integrated into the plot, unlike in All the Light where they’re handled with much greater artistry. I never understood what relevance snow crystals had to this story. Perhaps because I never understood what relationship Winkler had with the natural world. It’s like Doerr’s wiring was faulty and all the pretty network of lights he threaded through his story never came on. All the light we cannot see indeed!
The ending is horrible, a fairy story firework display of sentimentality and whimsy and, what’s more, wholly predictable. However you have to take your hat off to Doerr. To have started off his writing career with so little promise and gone on to write All the Light is some achievement.