Recent novel reading has slowed right down due to semester responsibilities. Nonetheless I have managed to read a couple of novels. I read Restless because the author, William Boyd, was recommended to me by a fellow passenger on a flight to Sydney. I had never heard of Boyd, but the superlatives on the cover, as well as the still from a movie dramatisation convinced that this must be just about the best book ever written. Alas!
The novel, like All that I Am, shifts between scenes set in World War II and the present, although this is not as good as Anna Funder’s novel. Its plot is forced in places and its characters are somewhat two-dimensional. Perhaps Boyd is “English fiction’s master storyteller,” but I wouldn’t say so, not on the basis of this book, at least. It is not a book I will keep because I want to read it again sometime.
My response to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was altogether different. Told through the eyes of Bruno, a nine-year old boy, this story, too, is set in World War II. Initially I felt the device of “Out-With” and the “Fury” was a little contrived, and then overdone, but as I continued reading it gained an ominous depth. There is a gentle humour and a disarming innocence in the story which drew me into the plot. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the story for those who are yet to read it. The fly-leaf description on my edition is not a description. It gives no clues to the story but simply says, “We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.” I did that, was moved by the story, and highly recommend it. Irish novelist John Boyne has written a very beautiful and poignant fable.
All That I Am tells the story of a small group of German resistance workers during the rise of Nazism. The story is narrated by two persons in two different times and locales recalling the events that so energised and then shattered their lives. Driven from Germany after the Nazis seize power, the group find refuge in London and seek to alert both the British public and their own countrymen of the growing threat posed by Hitler and his party. But all is not well in the little group and a devastating event tears them apart with severe implications for all of them.
Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin literary award for this novel in 2012 – deservedly in my estimation. I recall there being some disquiet around the award at the time. Is the book “Australian” enough, seeing it is largely set in London? Is it fictional enough? The second point is interesting. Funder has built her story around real persons, including a friend, Ruth Blatt (1906-2001) who serves as one of the book’s narrators. Ernst Toller (1893-1939), a German playwright is the book’s other voice, while Dora Fabian (1901-1935), activist, writer and journalist is the central figure in the book. Historical drama is probably my favourite genre, though I did not realise until I reached the acknowledgements at the end of book, just how historical it was. It remains, though, a work of fiction filled with intrigue and pathos.
Funder’s characters are believable, heroic and tragic. She manages to capture a sense of the terror and desperation which must have pervaded those living through the times, as well as English accommodation to Nazism in the Baldwin-Chamberlain period. The book is well-written, cleverly structured around the two voices, and ultimately, deeply humane. It draws the reader into the story, and the suspense Funder generates keeps the pages turning. The final pages gather some loose threads and lead to a pleasing resolution of the story.
In recent months I have read two stories by Australian authors written against the backdrop of Nazi Germany (the other was The Book Thief). Both are excellent, both are well-worth reading, both highly recommended.