Why fans of All The Light We Cannot See should read Joy Kogawa's Obasan

The Next Chapter columnist Victor Dwyer says Joy Kogawa's Obasan is a great companion book to Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See.
The Next Chapter columnist Victor Dwyer says Joy Kogawa's novel Obasan is the perfect Canadian companion to Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. (Anchor Books/Twitter/Scribner)
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Anthony Doerr​'s novel 2014All The Light We Cannot See was a popular and critical success which won the Pulitzer as well as many other awards and accolades. It's about a French girl who is blind and a German boy living in occupied France during the Second World War. The Next Chapter columnist Victor Dwyer read it this past summer when he was visiting France and he joined Shelagh Rogers to talk about it and Joy Kogawa's Obasan, the Canadian novel that he feels makes a good companion book.

Two perspectives

"Marie-Laure is this young girl who goes blind at a young age and her father takes care of her. They live in Paris and he makes these beautiful elaborate models of house out of wood so she can feel her way around and get to know where she is. War breaks out, they have to leave Paris and they end up in Brittany in Saint-Malo — and she effectively becomes an orphan when her father is taken away. The German boy, Verner, is an orphan who's adept at radios and the Nazis find this out and, of course, they need radio technicians and he's recruited to go to this very brutal Nazi academy. A lot of it takes place in the closing days of the war in Saint-Malo where Verner is looking for radios that the resistance is using and Marie-Laure is just trying to survive the ongoing bombing — and their two worlds come together."

Impact on young lives

"I think it is a very powerful book. And it really is a story also of the sacrificial lambs we make of children. So many children and adults were drawn into the Second World War. But it really is a powerful argument for how we can't just flirt with these things, that when war comes along young lives are just changed forever."

Reliving Canada's own racist past

"Obasan is told through the eyes of a woman who's now 35. Her name is Naomi but she's remembering when she was a girl. It opens with a family gathering to mark the death of her elderly uncle. And this propels all kinds of memories on her part. Her family was living in Vancouver during the Second World War and after Pearl Harbor there was this incredible sentiment of "yellow peril" within Canada. Citizens of Canada who were of Japanese descent fell under scrutiny. Everyone was suspecting them, their houses were taken away and many were placed into captivity. Many were sent to ghost towns where just huts would be put up for them to live in. And even after the war ended there was still this incredible undercurrent of racism within the country.

Casualties of war

"I have to say I did find Obasan even more moving than All the Light We Cannot See. And maybe that's because I knew it was a Canadian story and maybe I was feeling a bit guilty that I really didn't know this story. I was pretty ignorant when I read this book. But as a reader you're looking at it and thinking 'Oh my God, all these things that are happening to this little girl.'  The book takes you through war through innocent eyes and you as an adult feel sullied because you realize I haven't paid attention to this and the adults at the time were being so wantonly cruel and ignorant in how things were affecting children."