Sunday, June 30, 2013
Review of All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian
When the Nazis marched on Paris on June 14, 1940, a four-year occupation of the city began, leaving a mark of hunger, despair, and brutality on its citizens. In the midst of it all is the Pegorian family, Armenian refugees who are at the center of All the Light There Was. Maral Pegorian is 14 when the occupation begins and her brother Missak is 16. For them, the real sign that the occupation has begun is not the sound of German boots marching through the streets, or the ominous sight of tanks, but their mother and Aunt Shakeh, who lives with them, rushing to the stores and frantically stocking up on as much food as they can find in preparation of the lean times that they know are to come. Maral's mother even spends the money that she was saving to buy a new sewing machine, a signal to her and Missak as to just how serious things are about to become.
Eventually even this stockpile runs low and they, like many other Parisians, find themselves surviving on meager rations of rutabagas and other root vegetables, supplemented by occasional eggs and chicken from their cousins who have farmland outside of the city. Maral tries to continue a normal life as possible-studying hard to keep her status as a top student at her academic high school, knitting with her aunt, and spending time with her friends. However, her family's world changes in dramatic ways. Friends and neighbors disappear, rounded up and arrested for political speech, being part of the Resistance, or for being Jewish. Maral has a crush on one of her brother's best friends, Zaven, but just as their relationship begins to blossom, he and his brother Barkev, who along with Missak are part of the Resistance movement, disappear in order to avoid forced military service. Zaven and Barkev are eventually caught and imprisoned, and after D-Day and the liberation of Paris, only one of them returns, causing a major shift in Maral's life course.
The culture of the characters in the novel is close to the author's heart, as Kricorian herself grew up in the Armenian community of Watertown, Massachusetts. She studied at Dartmouth and the University of Paris, and completed an MFA at Columbia University. In addition to her essays and activism, she has also written two other novels.
Many novels have been written about life during World War II in Occupied Europe. All the Light There Was takes a well-worn plot line and tells it from a unique perspective. The Pegorian family are not native Parisians, horrified at what their homeland is turned into by Hitler's army, nor are they Jews, increasingly persecuted and ostracized until they are finally rounded up and marked for extermination. Maral's family came to France to flee their own holocaust, the genocide that left Maral's parents orphans. The lyrical prose told in the first person by Maral captures the unique position of her family-they maintain their language, culture, foods, and other practices while at the same time identifying strongly with their new country even though they are not citizens. Maral's father literally fumes with anger each night as he reads the news reports of Hitler and the puppet French government. Missak, Zaveg, Barkev and many other Armenians participate in resistance efforts. However, to the Nazis, they are looked down upon as refugee immigrants, people without a land, only slightly better than the despised Jews.
Kricorian captures an important period in world history and infuses it with haunting beauty, sadness, and even romance. One of the most beautiful lines in the book is when a friend tells Maral "you are so beautiful that you shed light on dark walls". Maral, her family, and her community find both small and large ways to find beauty and light in the darkness of Hitler's reign of terror. Her characters epitomize the struggle of those caught in the grip of Nazi Europe to maintain their dignity and their way of life despite ever-increasing difficulties and horrors around them.