Far to Go, by Alison Pick

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Kindertransport was a nine-month rescue mission, started a few days after Kristallnacht in 1938 and ended in September, 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland. During that period, close to 10,000 Jewish children were “rescued” from Germany and the occupied areas of Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and sent to live with families in the United Kingdom. Most of the children survived, some (but not many) were united with their parents after the war, most emerged as orphans who knew little about the fate of their parents.

Kindertransport has already inspired some very impressive creative work. Diane Samuel’s play of the same name is the story of a daughter whose mother did survive — the adult daughter rejects her mother. If you ever get the chance to see a production, do not miss it. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (my favorite of his novels) is also Kindertransport-inspired — the main character, now an adult, has persistent memories about the journey that brought him to the United Kingdom.

I begin with that background because it indicates that Canadian author Alison Pick has set herself a major challenge in choosing to write a Kindertransport story. While not biographical, it is inspired by her personal history. Her Jewish grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia to Canada and raised their children without telling them they were Jewish. The death of Pick’s grandmother in 2000 caused the author’s father to begin looking into family history (which eventually led to interviewing some Kindertransport refugees, now senior citizens) and she acknowledges using his research. Her experience in researching and writing the novel led her to convert to Judaism last year.

Given that personal background, it is fitting that Pick has chosen an indirect method to structure her story. The narrator who introduces each chapter (and becomes a direct participant late in the novel) is an aging Canadian academic writing in the present whose specialty is the Holocaust:

I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again, at the last minute, in the essential goodness of the world around us and the people in it. There are few things in life, though, that turn out for the best, with real happy endings.

Before the narrator’s introduction to each chapter, however, Pick includes a letter that reminds the reader of the past story. Here is the start of the one that opens the book:

07/12/1939

Dear Mrs. Inverness,

Although I could write a whole book, a short note will say what I need to say.

Things are happening here — unimaginable things. And yet, our only child, our Tomas, is safe in London with you.

Dear Mrs. Inverness, I cannot tell you my gratitude. And your detailed writing about our boy has moved us to tears.

As you are so extremely good as to be inclined to prepare his favourite dishes, I shall gladly tell you what Tomas likes to eat. He is very fond of fruit, especially of bananas. His favourite soups are: vermicelli, mushroom, potato soup, lentil soup, cumin soup with vermicelli. As to the farinaceous food he ate little as well, but mostly liked a chocolate tart minus cream. (First I should say to please excuse my English! It is a recent language for me.)

The greatest risk that Pick takes, however, is in the sections that form the bulk of each chapter — her central character, Marta, is a Gentile, not Jewish. She is the nanny to Pepik, the cousin of Tomas in the letter quoted above and the son of Pavel and Anneliese Bauer. Bauer is a significant industrialist, his wife a social factor in their town and as the book opens disaster is already looming:

Marta still couldn’t reconcile the rallying gunfire with their sleepy Bohemian town. It could claim the tallest church spire in the region — fifty-five feet precisely — but there was nothing else remarkable about it. A Gentile butcher, a Jewish tailor, two hundred families grouped together on the east bank of a river with nowhere particular to go. It was quiet and safe; she knew that’s why Pavel loved it. He loved a week in London, a month on the Adriatic coast in the summer, but beneath it he was a vlastenecky, a Czech nationalist. The thing he loved best was coming home.

Part of Pavel’s nationalism is his optimism: he refuses to believe that Czechoslovkia will be occupied. Even as things get steadily worse, he always searches for the optimistic outcome. Annaliese, on the other hand, is an eternal pragmatist. As each new problem and threat arrives, she takes a defensive step, usually without thinking about its consequences. Obviously, neither of those strategies will end up successful — their failure will effect not only the Bauers but their son and Marta.

That is how Pick has framed her story and it opens a number of threads for the author, all of which she delivers on very well. Two parents concerned about both their country and their son, but facing hopeless odds. A Gentile nanny, whose fate is inexorably entwined with that of the Bauer family. And the presence of a present-day narrator, an indication from the start that this story will extend a half century beyond the war itself.

I won’t go any further into any of those themes. If that opening outline sounds too depressing to you, you probably won’t like the book. If it has any appeal, let me just say that for me author Pick, in her own way, has produced a novel that deserves comparison with Sebald’s volume (although in no way similar, except for the historical background) and Samuel’s play. For me, perhaps an even better comparison would be Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (my favorite novel of 2009) in the way that it chronicles the inevitable fate of the young and hopeful Czechoslovakia as it is transformed into an occupied territory where horror reigns. And, like Mawer, an intense exploration of what that horror meant to some of the people who had to live through it.

Pick’s own ancestral history may fuel the story, but it never intrudes on it. The result, as promised in that opening passage from the narrator, is not “a happy story”. But, as also promised in that statement, there is “a wish” that it could be — in many ways it is that exploration of how people maintain hope (even if it is futile) that is the real strength of the book. The author’s ability to maintain the tension between the inevitable outcome and that hope, coupled with her extension of the story into the present, makes Far to Go one of the better books that I have read this year. I certainly hope to see it on the Giller Prize longlist — it is a very significant realization of an ambitious goal.

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21 Responses to “Far to Go, by Alison Pick”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Sounds excellent! I hope it ends up on the Giller longlist in a few weeks. If so, I imagine we’ll talk about it for some length of time in the months ahead. If not, it sounds like we might want to anyway.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: It has only been a week since I finished this book, but I am amazed at how many images of it keep coming back to mind. Despite the setting and background story, it is not dramatic — rather it is relentless, with an offsetting strand of forlorn hope. Those who think Room is a good book absolutely have to read Far To Go to understand how similar themes can be addressed in so much more appropriate a fashion.

  3. Trevor Says:

    I thought you might like to know that here in the U.S. Harper Perrenial picked up this book. It will be published some time next year. Their twitterer was saying how much he or she enjoyed it when reading it this past spring during the acquisition process. I’m still hoping it will hit the Giller and help me get it early, but if not, I will be looking forward to its release here next year.

  4. Trevor Says:

    Also, rereading your review above has reminded me that I still need to read Austerlitz, which will complete my reading of Sebald’s “novels.” I’ve been holding off on it because I figure you can only read a Sebald novel for the first time once. But it is about time. Then I can read them all for the second time.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Excellent news about U.S. publication for Far to Go — and that the pubishers are excited about it.

    As for Austerlitz, it was my first Sebald, My recollection is that I found it somewhat easier to comprehend that his others, but that may be faulty.

  6. Guy Savage Says:

    Hey Kevin: don’t know if you are interested, but there’s a documentary called Into The Arms of Strangers about the Kindertransport.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I have read about the documentary but haven’t seen it. I’ll admit to preferring fiction representations to documentaries.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    Forgive me for going off on a tangent, but is it really possible that a European child from the 1930s would declare a banana their favourite fruit? Surely they weren’t commonly imported at that time, and even if they were, I’m assuming they would have been quite expensive. Am willing to be corrected if someone knows more about the banana trade in the mid-20th century! ;-)

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Actually, Kim, wikipedia notes that the first banana plantations were created by the Portugese in the 15th and 16th centuries — although it also notes that bananas were not well known in England as late as the Victorian era. The imense plantations of the United Fruit Company were set up in the early 19th century in countries like Honduras, Cuba and Guatemala (hence, “banana republic”). So I am pretty sure bananas would have been known in Czechosovakia, although they probably were pretty expensive. Both Bauers, however, did own factories and were versions of wealthy industrialists (not unlike the family in Mawer’s The Glass Room) — a sub-theme of the novel that I haven’t mentioned in the review is the resentment local Germans felt towards them because of that. Marta’s adulterous lover, who is Bauer’s foreman, plays a significant role in exposing the family.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Further to your tangent, the United Fruit Company built its first banana reefer (refrigerated ship) in 1903 and in 1909 built (in Ireland, so you can research this further) a fleet of 13 5,000-ton banana reefers. See what happens when you spark my curiosity? :-)

  11. kimbofo Says:

    Hehehehe, thanks for the info, Kevin. I saw the entry about bananas on wikipedia, but wasn’t sure it provided enough info on transportation of bananas in the 1930s for my hunch to be proved right or wrong. I know the Brits imported bananas from the Canary Islands in the late 1600s, but didn’t know about the refrigerated ships in the early 1900s!

    All that aside, I should thank you for this review. It sounds like an interesting book, especially your comparisons to Sebald, an author I discovered late last year.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Well, I admit I was surprised to discover refrigerated ships were being built in 1903. Amazing what learning the book blogging world provides.

    I liked the novel a lot — and was tentative when I approached it. I’d read a couple of articles about Pick’s discovery of her own history whille working on the novel and was worried that might overtake the fiction. For me, it certainly did not.

  13. pburt Says:

    I am glad to hear this will appear in the United States next year. I, too loved the Glass Room, it narrowly edged out Coetzee’s Summertime as my favorite short listers last year (although I still haven’t read Wolf Hall – given my difficulty for getting into that book I doubt it will supplant The Glass Room).

    I picked up Austerlitz in July and found it very difficult to get into and didn’t make it past 50 pages. Is it a book the grows on you? I was in the middle of finishing off a massive readathon and didn’t think struggling through it would get me to my goal so I put it down. I wonder if I was too hasty.

    PB

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    pburt: Austerlitz is not an easy read and does require contemplation along the way. I would advise giving it another try when you have more time — but if you are still frustrated after 50 pages the second time, I’d say it probably doesn’t fit your tastes. Far To Go is a much more conventional narrative — not unlike The Glass Room. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  15. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland Says:

    [...] think Kevin from Canada is one of the best book bloggers out there and in this post, he reviews Far to Go by Alison Pick.  Fortunately, it looks like this book will be published in [...]

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have a general dislike of novels dealing with the Holocaust. They tend to be trite, and often worthy. Partly it’s just a prejudice on my part, we all have topics that interest us (school tales for you for example) or that disinterest us.

    What caught my attention here were your comparisons with the Mawer and what you draw out about the wider situation of Czhechoslovakia. This clearly isn’t just a work of misery tourism, or an attempt to take genuine horror and use it for a pat life affirming message.

    Interesting stuff. I’ll take a note of it and keep an eye out for when it hits the UK.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I too have a level of Holocaust resistance (I’ve read enough good ones that I don’t really need more). But I do find the Kindertransport story interesting since the writers who address it tend to write more about “what kind of adults did this produce” (this is a bit of a spoiler, but that is where this novel heads in the closing pages — with a particularly good twist).

    The comparisons with Mawer come from the “destruction of hope” in a country that was only two decades old. I can see parallels (and did in Mawer’s book as well) between the fate of the young child and the fate of the young nation — neither have influence on their destiny.

    So while the Holocaust is definitely a presence in this book, I wouldn’t call it a book about the Holocaust — rather a couple of different elements that were also a part of the atrocity of Nazism.

  18. Trevor Says:

    Now that I’ve finished this one, Kevin, I’m really baffled it didn’t do better (or, rather, anything) in the Canadian awards last year. I was worried a few times throughout that it was a bit artificial — or, at least, convenient — in it’s narrative at times, and the romance aspect did little for me. But each of those concerns were taken care of when it turned out there was purpose and an acknowledgment of these very aspects.

    I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t just the emotional pull — though that was strong — that impressed me here.

    I wonder how it will do on the long list. Sadly, it doesn’t appear many are interested in reading it. I can understand that, but hopefully a few more will, and then a few more.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I agree that this is one of those novels that is very hard to describe without seeming to raise questions or even disinterest — it has been almost a year, but I remember aspects of it very well. And one doesn’t want to push the heart-breaking choices that the parents of the two boys have to make, because it makes the whole book seem melodramatic and it is anything but that. We shall see how it does on the shortlist.

  20. kimbofo Says:

    Read and reviewed this one now… It was a good novel but not an excellent one, and I am a bit puzzled as to why it’s on the Booker longlist. It certainly did not feel like a “literary” novel — and even the publisher, Headline Review, bills it as “popular fiction” on its website.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I saw your review — I liked the novel better than you did, but cannot say that I dispute your concerns. And given that it did not even make the Giller longlist last year, that would be three other people who had serious concerns about it. As for “literary”, let me assure you this one is in the top third of this year’s Booker longlist when it comes to “literary” (which is a testimony to the strangeness of the list — see my opinion on other threads here).

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