Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: All The Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

The setting is World War II Paris -- when the Germans begin their occupation of the city, the protagonist of this story is just turning sixteen. Maral Pegorian and her older brother, Missak, are part of an Armenian family displaced to France after the Armenian genocide. They are stateless refugees and have made the suburb of Belleville in Paris, their home. Maral’s father is a cobbler and owns a small shoe shop hoping to one day pass on his skills to his son.

Missak, on the other hand, has different plans. He is a skilled artist and wants to work as an apprentice at the local print shop while spending most of his time secretly helping the French resistance. As a girl from a fairly conservative family, Maral can’t do much to help her brother, even if she sometimes wishes she could. “Was this to be my lot? Stuck in an apartment knitting or sewing or cooking while waiting for the men to come back from some adventure? It made me want to take the kitchen plates and throw them out the window just to hear them smash into a thousand pieces on the cobblestones below,” she laments.

Easily the smartest in the family, Maral goes through school even with the war progressing all around her, and towards the end of the story, graduates with an offer of admission to one of France’s most prestigious universities.

The Pegorian family’s fate is not unique to Paris or even to Armenians. Their neighbors, the Kacherians (also Armenian) are scraping the barrel to get by as are the many mixed families (including Jewish folks) in the neighborhood. Food is hard to come by -- it’s mostly bulgur and turnips that the Pegorians manage to finagle with their ration card. There’s hardly any butter or meat to be had and even onions can be a rare delicacy. Despite the evident sufferings of the citizens during the Occupation, the children somehow manage to be themselves. Maral, in fact, falls in love with Zaven, one of the Kacherian sons, and Missak’s best friend. The two meet surreptitiously and pledge themselves to each other. Yet the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition.

Zaven and his older brother, Barkev, are swept up by the force of history and spend time in a German camp which changes them forever. The war crimes they witness leave permanent scars on their psyches -- and ripples from these will eventually touch everyone they know including Maral.

History plays out in more than one way in this touching novel by Nancy Kricorian. With the weight of the Armenian genocide on their shoulders, the Armenian families in All The Light There Was, only want to lie low and not be subject to more tragedies. Maral’s parents have witnessed the horrors of the massacre personally and understandably it defines their life perspective in many subtle ways. When a Jewish family next door is rounded up by the Germans, the Pegorians hide the youngest girl in that family in their own apartment until the child is ready to be shipped to her aunt in Nice.

The Armenians in Maral’s generation might be removed from the immediate horrors of the Armenian genocide but they use the lessons learned from it to know that survival depends on many complicated factors. They are not ready to judge when they see their fellow brethren wear the American or the German uniform in the war.

In the end this story is a coming-of-age tale about Maral, a girl of promise at the novel’s start but who gradually gets worn down as the story moves along. “This is the story of how we lived the war, and how I found my husband,” Maral says at the beginning. The path toward finding her husband is not necessarily the most optimal but of course this is wartime and everyone’s lives are shaped by it. For someone who was fairly strong-willed at the beginning, it is a little frustrating, if understandable, to see Maral give up her education and instead fall into what comes more easily.

All The Light There Was is told through Maral’s voice and her perspective. In one sense, since she doesn’t do much except to bear witness to events that happen around her, this point of view feels limiting at times. The lens is never trained away from Maral and it occasionally gets claustrophobic. Yet it is precisely because the story is told through Maral’s voice, that the reader gets to feel what life was like for everyday citizens in occupied Paris. You realize that even during the worst wars, life can plod along -- and even shine through -- with grace. The beautiful cover art in this book drives home the point gracefully. Maral and her boyfriend are up front, lost in each other, while the rest of Paris goes on around them. You realize that while teenagers are often self-centered anyway, in times of war, this can be an essential mechanism to get through its many tribulations.

Ultimately the story ends with a ray of hope. “This world is made of dark and light, my girl, and in the darkest times you have to believe the sun will come again, even if you yourself don’t live to see it,” Maral’s father once tells her. As the reader turns the last page, you hope that the sun will indeed come again and shine down on the young and vibrant Armenians. 

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

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