I chose this book because I recently read Doerr’s second book, All the Light We Cannot See, and it was the best book I have read in several years. I was hoping for more of the same.
About Grace tells the story of an awkward and unheroic character, David Winkler, who for some reason has premonitions, or dreams that come true. So the book opens on a plane journey when the protagonist, realising that a bag will fall from the luggage locker, warns the owner, and is first ignored then, when the bag falls, scorned by her for having deliberately left the locker open!!
Later in a supermarket in Alaska he meets a young married woman in a similar fashion – he knows she will knock a magazine to the floor, so rushes to help her pick it up. Even so she walks away, though later he is able to meet her again. They have an affair, and run off to Ohio, where Grace is born.
At this point Winkler begins to have recurring dreams about the baby, Grace, drowning in a flood. In his vision he sees himself holding the dead baby above the flood waters. Eventually the fear is too great. When the rains come in floods, Winkler runs away, leaving his family to their fate, hoping that because he won’t be there, the dramatic image of death will not become reality.
He crosses America, takes a berth on a freight ship and ends up in the West Indies where he spends the next years. Here Winkler makes friends with locals including political refugees from Chile who have a daughter called Naaliyah: she becomes almost a surrogate child for him. At one point he has similar dreams about Naaliyah drowning; he becomes obsessed, and follows her everywhere, much to everyone’s annoyance, but eventually saves her from this death.
Winkler tries to contact his wife, Sandy, to discover Grace’s fate, but receives no reply. Eventually Naaliyah, inspired by Winkler, who is a scientist, gains a scholarship to a university in Alaska to study entomology. Shortly after, Winkler decides to return to the USA to try to find Grace.
After a library search facilitated by a man in a wheelchair, and armed with the names of all the Grace Winklers in the USA, Winkler sets off on a tour of the states, visiting each Grace in turn, but none are his daughter. There is a crisis when his last visit results in accusations of theft and damage. Winkler escapes across the open plains, becomes lost and nearly dies. Stumbling onto a road, he hitches a lift to Alaska, where he finds Naaliyah. He spends the winter at her research centre deep in the wilderness of the Yukon. The final section of the book sees his return to Anchorage and the denouement of the story of Grace.
I don’t normally give such detailed accounts of the plots of books, but this one is pretty weird and seemed worthy of some detail. It’s a very odd book. I suppose it’s about Winkler finding Grace, and so that in itself is a pretty fine metaphor, suggesting there is a theme of morality in this book. And after all Winkler did run off with a married woman, did fail to live up to his responsibilities as a father and husband, and did hurt several innocent people, so I guess he needed Grace, as we all do.
On the other hand the whole book is based on a pretty weird and whacky premise and that in itself is a big question mark against a novel that seems to preach psychological realism.
Winkler is a scientist – a meteorologist actually. He is obsessed with the beauty of snowflakes and the nature of hydrology, of the water cycle. Naaliyah is inspired by his scientific knowledge and becomes an entomologist. In Alaska she is breeding insects on a remote experimental station. The book contains lots of descriptions based around these two scientific disciplines. So the scene before the flood, and the scenes in the Yukon, are fraught with images of water cycles and snowflake and frost, of death and hibernation.
As the story reaches its denouement Winkler begins a correspondence with his wife’s former husband in the hope of finding Grace. A few quotations here will show you how Doerr attempts to pull all these ideas and images together.
Collecting snowflakes and admiring their beauty, Winkler claims the ones in the wild are bigger and more real than in the lab – like wild animals that make zoo animals seem like shadows. Here he encounters the heart of life – its essential beauty and integrity, as if even snowflakes have a soul. But there is more. It’s not so much a science for him he says, it’s the light, the way it absorbs sound. The way we feel that the more that falls, the more we are forgiven.
He goes on: dreams are a ladle dipped, a bucket lowered. The imagery of water continues: dreams are the deep cool water beneath the bright surface; the shadow at the base of every tree. Now his only dream is to find Grace.
Doerr is clearly a great writer with a fantastic imagination and a beautiful turn of phrase. He uses imagery extensively to explore themes and ideas, and to show the way that Winkler is alienated from life by his own self consciousness, by his fear and inability to engage.
For me About Grace was not as good as his second novel All the Light We Cannot See. The plot focuses on the question of what has happened to Grace, and this was not as compelling an issue as the wartime dynamic in Doerr’s second book. Nevertheless I think it is a book that would repay a closer reading, a book that is ambitious, well written and carefully constructed.