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:
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.