Monday, July 9, 2012

All That I Am by Anna Funder

Honesty time: I am a bit of a book-store snob.  I always find that book stores in train stations or airports are littered with celebrity 'novels' or just books which aren't good and yet they're £££ (and I just get annoyed that they know you need something so will pay).  I found myself, however, in a bit of a rare situation for me.  I normally have a book somewhere on my person and yet that day I was stuck with a flat iPod, no kindle, no book, nothing but a three hour train journey ahead, so I begrudgingly headed in and finally settled on All That I Am and was actually pleasantly surprised.

The novel tells the story of life before, during, and after Hitler's rise to power and the effect that the historic events had on the group of intellectuals forced out of their own country, but mostly of the effects it had on the four friends.  The story itself is narrated by both Toller and Ruth - each chapter telling events from their own perspectives as they settled into life as refugees in London, fighting Hitler through propaganda newspapers they printed themselves.  Toller, a successful playwright is enraptured with the dynamic, yet forgotten by history Dora, and promises to add her into his autobiography, thus insuring that her brave efforts are remembered.  As she risked her life to save his satirical plays which had placed him high on the Nazi's hit-list.  Ruth tells her story from Sydney as an elderly woman sent a copy of the final proof of Toller's autobiography, as she reads his words she remembers her past so much more vividly than her recent history, as she sleeps she is transported back to that time and remembers how although she herself was not something special, yet the nurses whisper around her - she was in the resistance.

For its author, Anna Funder, this is her first novel, her previous book Stasiland is the winner of the 2004 Samuel Johnson prize.  She is praised for her ability to personalise the facts and events which occurred in the former German Democratic Republic, a skill which she has honed with All That I Am, with its real people, events, with a bit of padding by Funder.  I can see why some might quibble that it isn't technically fiction throughout being based on real events, real people, based on real letters and diary entries.  There were times when the characters, supposedly isolated in England knew statistics and facts which seemed unreasonable.  Some have said that this is just another reason why Funder should stick to non-fiction since she thrives in the genre.  Speaking personally, however, I found the facts added to the tension, the bits I do remember from history lessons came alive when I became so involved with the characters.  Knowing that Toller's work had been a part of the massive pile of books burnt just, for some reason, made it seem more shocking, more unfair.

Hitler and war-torn Germany has hardly been an untouched area when it comes to 'fiction'.  There is a plethora of films, and books, dedicated to the time-period.  This book seemed much more focused on the human side of the war.  Hitler himself was barely mentioned - it isn't the story of the people at the top, but rather the uncles and aunts who you suddenly found that what once was a disagreement over politics meant that they were now handing you over to the police.  It has a power which resonates - that this could have happened to anyone, and that the lessons, and the moral struggles which the characters face are fascinating, relevant, and dealt with in such a mesmerizing manner by Funder.

I did find, however, that the ending was disappointing.  Considering the novel is supposedly told from the perspective of Ruth and Toller I loved that some aspects of the story remained unknown.  For much of the novel this remains the case and yet at the end suddenly there's a few sloppy chapters full of 'unexpected letters' or sightings which recount exactly how certain events unfolded.  I, personally, preferred not knowing. (If you've read the book, or end up reading the book, let me know if you feel the same!)

The book is full of intrigue, suspense, relatable and fascinating characters, and is a mini-history lesson, what's not to love?  It's so easy to read - it draws you in, you feel and fear for the characters, I loved it!

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