Wednesday, August 11, 2010

*Far to Go* by Alison Pick

Years ago, a friend of mine noted that it was getting harder to read novels as a fellow writer."You find it difficult to relax, you're constantly watching to see what the writer is up to." he said.This fellow has published a couple novels, a few short story collections and a whack of poetry that is as central to my reading experience now as it was twenty five years ago. In short, he knows his stuff.

Booksellers and close readers of all kinds read with a little suspended disbelief as well. With all the choice out there, it's simply not enough for a novelist to pen a compelling story with engaging characters; with a hope of showing some art in the telling.There also has to be some notion of balance and proportion in the tale.

There have been books published in the last decade that have been beloved, that I found so overwritten it became a burden to find the current in the tale. Every action, every glance and gaze was portrayed as being so pregnant with meaning that the novel lost all scope. If everything mattered so very much, how to know what--if anything--to view as especially significant?
Conversely, and for any number of reasons there are novels that read like early drafts, where a line edit or a frank talk with a perceptive editor would have saved what one Globe and Mail critic quite rightly calls a "broken book." I don't think there's a better reading circumstance than when you get that reassuring touch on the shoulder at about page twenty or so of the text. The soft voice that says, "Relax, I'm driving and you'll like where I'm taking you."

The new novel by Alison Pick is called Far to Go and in 300 pages, she tells an epic story of the aftermath of the Munich Agreement in the fall of 1938. The agreement allowed Nazi Germany to annex a portion of then Czechoslovakia that was home to a majority of ethnic Germans during the war. Pick's grandparents were able to leave Czechoslovakia for Canada and the bones of their story are here, but the story succeeds on her judicious choices in tone and the sterling quality of her prose.

Pavel and Annalise Bauer are secular Jews who view with trepidation and soon great urgency the arrival of German soldiers on their home soil and the novel becomes a story of their six year old son Pepek, and the Bauer's attempts to get him out of the country before the inevitability of the coming war becomes apparent. The family keeps a housekeeper Marta, who is central to the story, uniquely involved in the lives of all the other characters, and who would be the moral centre of the book if not for a couple critical lapses at crucial times in the story. Still, in many ways she is the hero here. Themes of memory and loss, betrayal and duplicity are explored through her eyes.Life during wartime calls for complex characters and there simply isn't a weak link here.

Sophie works for the Bauer's as domestic help and nurses a grudge into support for Hitler. Ernst manages the factory that Pavel owns, and tricks and cajoles his way into influence over the Bauer's as war becomes more certain. Like the celebrated recent novel Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, Far to Go shows Nazism as more about trumped up grievances and mania rather than politics. The immediate family--Pavel, Annalise and Pepik are impossible not to care about, but their struggles and secrets add layers to their unease. Their very real imperfections enrich their portrayal, rather than simply making the affluent Jewish family a doomed dovish simulacrum. Pavel and Annalise disagree at the outset around the severity of the German threat, and other cracks in the marriage serve to illuminate an already extraordinary circumstance.

The real joy here in in the prose. Alison Pick is an award winning poet and sentences in Far to Go shine. Whole paragraphs read like scripture in places and the promise of a still very young writer with roots in K-W is more than fulfilled with this luminous and finely detailed novel.


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