Contemporary Literature

All That’s Left to Tell

I’m not sure what prompted me to pick this up. It’s a debut, which I always love – it’s so cool to see what that first foray into novel writing looks like. I love that for some it’s their crowning glory, while for others it gets lost in their later success. In any case, the plot description was intriguing and reminded me a bit of Scheherazade and her stories, so I went for it. Sadly, while the reading experience itself wasn’t bad, this turned out to be, overall, one of my least favorite books so far this year.

All That’s Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe

All That's Left to Tell 00002.1

“After finishing this book, I can really only say that I’m not entirely sure what happened, what was real and what wasn’t. There were some things that I thought were beautifully done. This novel is an homage to story telling on so many levels. The characters we are reading about are telling stories about other people telling stories. There are stories within stories within stories. The layers are almost endless, like those mirror rooms at old school carnivals. And, the same as in those mirrored rooms, we are left not knowing for sure what is real and what is a reflection, what is made up.

Although the book centers around Marc and his daughter, Claire, and their relationship (or, in many of the stories, the lack thereof), there are many sub-characters and sub-stories that weave seamlessly in with theirs and become just as important to us as readers. And the interweaving is done beautifully, so that we can see reflections of each story in the others and never really know which is the original, which is the truth, if everyone is actually who they say they are. This is especially true because many of the characters and details are subtly shared among them (a dog named Penny, a lake house in Michigan, an unwanted kiss on the lips, a time spent in Pakistan, a stabbing). We, as readers, are left sort of floating in and among these characters and details, bouncing softly from one to the next, in a sort of dreamy daze. It’s a perfectly created ambiance that lends itself well to each of the tellings.

But while the individual pieces are crafted so well into that whole, in the end, that whole fails to impress. I think the author almost tries too hard to confuse the reader, in the end. In the last few pages and into the epilogue, we come to a place where what we thought we knew about the layers is completely dismantled. And we are left with new characters, massive changes to the reality we were presented at the start, the use of amnesia (I mean, really, amnesia as a plot device seems too easy for this book, it resonates badly), and a wrapping up of many characters within the stories in a way that makes them all seem to be suffering from something like schizophrenia (or any other type of illness that distorts reality). It’s a twist that fits the plot in general, but not in the sudden way it’s heaped on us at the end. It just didn’t come across right, for me. And because, with a novel like this, the suspension of belief from the reader is so contingent on pulling it together well in the end, it was just a very disappointing finale. And, I think reasonably, that colored much of the rest of the book, looking back at it, with that same disappointment.

Overall, I see, and agree with, the praise heaped onto this book for it’s storytelling power, it’s ability to wrap you up in those stories, and the make you lose yourself in them. It really is an expertly crafted set of stories. But we are dumped unceremoniously out of those stories at the end in a way that really ruined the journey and the (prior) expertly crafted ambiance.”

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