Far to Go by Alison Pick
|Far to Go by Alison Pick|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: A wealthy Jewish family in late 1930s Czechoslovakia is always going to be an emotional story, but this Booker-nominated story avoids crushing sentimentality by offering a complex and thrilling story of the family's efforts to secure safety, particularly for their six year old son.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: May 2011|
|Publisher: Headline Review|
|External links: Author's website|
At the risk of sounding trite, a story set in 1938 Czechoslovakia on the eve of Nazi occupation, centred on a Jewish family is always going to put the reader through an emotional journey. Add in a young child and it's almost certain that you are going to be reaching for the Kleenex at some point. But Alison Pick makes some interesting creative choices that add more layers to this story. Some will surprise the reader but the overall impact is a wonderfully moving story with wholly believable characters.
The first of these creative choices can be a little alienating to begin with. The reader is faced with a series of short chapters that don't immediately gel together. In fact the reader has to wait a long time to work out how the whole literary conceit comes together. The one-page prologue is a first person narrative about a train. Is this the kindertransport train we are told about on the cover or a child's toy?
Next comes a letter dated 1939 but which has notes that are clearly more recent, as if part of some modern day academic record of the communication. Then we return to the first person narrative, which seems to be set again in the recent past. Who is talking, we are not told, but someone old is dying in a hospital bed. By now, we are some ten pages in before the real bulk of the third person narrative story begins, but Pick has one more layer of confusion to add. We hear about an attack on a Jewish man in Austria before we learn that this is a story being related by Pavel Bauer, a wealthy secular Jew living in the Sudetenland, part of post Great War Czechoslovakia, to Marta the nanny of his young boy on the eve of German occupation. A warning of things to come. But the Bauers are not practising Jews and there is an optimism that this will protect them from the worst of Hitler's anti-Semitism.
The letter and first person narrative interludes continue sparsely throughout the book, but they are always brief and while it takes time to realise their importance, they don't interfere greatly with the pathos of the main story and the final pay off is well worth it. For some, this literary device might be distancing, but in looking at the aftermath of these events, I found it added a further level of emotional depth.
The second creative choice concerns the main story where Pick has chosen to focus events, less from the perspective of the Jewish family and their young son, but more from the point of view of their gentile Nanny, Marta. She's a beautifully written character. She's innocent to the point of naivety and complex. She makes bad decisions and is never wholly good nor bad. If the set up is all sounding a bit 'Sound of Music', Marta is certainly no Julie Andrews. She's wholly believable, not least for this complexity of character.
We follow the family as they flee from Sudetenland to the short term safety of Prague. But of course, history relates that the annexation of the Sudetenland didn't deter Hitler's progress for long and there is almost a thriller sense to the story as the family seek ways out to safety and in particular for the safety of young Pepik, their six year old son. Should they put him on one of the kindertransport trains to safety or will the whole family escape? Or will none of them get out? It's impossible not to care for their fate in general and for sweet little Pepik in particular.
The book also interestingly explores the impact of the Nazi threat on the Bauer family's attitude to their Jewish heritage. Husband, Pavel, becomes more inspired by his faith while wife, Anneliese, seeks to further distance herself from all things Jewish.
One slight frustration was that, while the use of Czech terms, particularly relating to food here, adds a degree of authenticity to the story, I was longing to know what it was that they were eating. I have an irrational aversion to footnotes in fiction, but an appended glossary of Czech terms would have been interesting here.
This is an original, and sometimes surprising, take on the plight of Jews in the lead up to the Second World War. The lightness of the writing style brings out the personal stories and the pace reads almost like a thriller. Ultimately Pick keeps a few surprises up here sleeve until the later stages of this moving story.
Our huge thanks to the kind people at Headline Review for forwarding a copy of this Booker-nominated novel to The Bookbag.
For more heart-rending WW2 tales of children, look no further than The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.
Far to Go by Alison Pick is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.
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