2011 Long List – Far To Go – Alison Pick

I must admit I have an issue with attempting a review on “holocaust” fiction, if I’m critical then may be I’m taken as being flippant, if I’m overly excited am I then considered to be taking very serious subject matter too lightly? So I’m in a hard spot here.

The basic premise of Canadian writer, Alison Pick’s “Far to Go” is the Kindertransport rescue mission, that took place prior to the outbreak of World War II. This mission was where predominantly Jewish children from various European countries were removed from the imminent threats and placed in British foster homes. Many of the children never seeing their families again – of course as a reader your first thoughts naturally are, will that fate await young Pepik in our story? But don’t be fooled, this novel is a lot more complex than that simple story.

Structurally, each chapter contains a life reflection, or narrative, from a researcher into the kindertransport displaced children and the holocaust, a letter (from and to various characters or connected characters), some censored, all displaying the fate of the writer and a longer section which focuses on the tale of Marta, a nanny in the Bauer household.

The novel opens in late 1938 introducing the head of the household, Pavel Bauer, a successful business man who owns a factory in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, his wife Anneliese a socialite and their 6 year-old son Pepik who simply loves playing with his train sets. Marta, the hired help is a gentile, and although the Bauer’s are not practicing Jews the German occupation of their corner of the world will set them on various physical and mental journeys – questioning their heritage, their faith, each other and more.

It was odd, really, the way humans went about their days so boldly, ordering coffee, weighing out exactly two hundred grams of potatoes on the greengrocer’s scale, as though their lives were something that could be controlled, portioned out as desired. When really, all it took was one little upset to reveal….the imbalance of things.

As a reader using even basic knowledge of World War Two history, you can guess the fates of the core characters and you cannot help but be shocked by their ignorant decisions, their faith that all will return to normal and their blindness of their treatment (by their so-called friends and other anti-semitic characters). As Marta’s past is revealed it only partially explains her actions (or in-action) and your frustrations heighten yet further. All of the main characters are highly engaging, you wish against all logic that they could have a better outcome, and the plot, although based on historical fact, is revealing and highly believable. So plausible is the story and the threads coming together that on some occasions I had to check myself, “I’m reading fiction here”.

To be honest this is a very difficult novel to review, and for some strange reason I kept thinking of Simon Mawer’s “The Glass Room” (one of my favourites from the 2009 short list). Maybe it was the Czechoslovakian setting, maybe the encroaching holocaust, maybe the loss of control of their country and their homes, maybe even the novel’s structure, whatever it was the similarities must be existent as my memories of “The Glass Room” came flooding back, time and time again.

In short “Far To Go” is a haunting, lingering, well constructed and engaging tale, as the cover says “an extraordinary journey”. Along with “Pigeon English”, at this stage I think this is a worthy contender for the short list (although I still have 10 more books to get through and this view may change). Next up I’m tackling “Snowdrops” by A.D. Miller – purposely leaving Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst until the end of the reading as their reputation alone probably ensures a spot on the shortlist.

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