Thursday, August 18, 2011

*Far to Go, by Alison Pick

Harper Perennial, 2011
originally published by House of Anansi Press, 2010
336 pp.

"...there is healing in the telling, but there is also something that gets lost. The past is gone, and we cannot get it back."

Novels about the Holocaust are nothing new, and I got to a point some time ago where I just quit reading them. Although  it is an essential time that should remain as a period to never forget,  at some point I got to where a) I felt saturated, having seen many of the same content and literary conventions reappearing again and again and b) I just had to turn away from the emotional toll some of these books brought on.  I do have a few on my tbr shelf yet to read (Austerlitz and Panorama to name a couple),  but in general I don't make this type of literature my first choice of reading material. Truthfully, had this book not been on the Booker Prize longlist this year I probably would never have picked it up, and as it turns out, that would have been a crying shame.  Although it has many of the same elements from other Holocaust literature, there are some  fundamental differences I didn't expect in Far to Go that set it apart.

Far to Go alternates between two times and two places: Czechoslovakia on the eve of and during the Nazi invasion and occupation, and modern  Montreal.  In Czechoslovakia, we meet the Bauer family, an ordinary upper middle-class family, living a normal life:  Pavel, Annaliese and their young son Pepik, who is watched over by his nanny Marta.  Pavel owns a textiles factory that allows his family to live well.  Annaliese, who grew up in Prague,  wears the most current fashions, sports "large Greta Garbo sunglasses and fresh red lipstick," and falls well into her social role as wife of a wealthy industrialist.   Annaliese has had some tragedy in her life: she lost her baby daughter when she was only three weeks old. It was Marta who took care of her afterwards, and who takes on most of Pepik's upbringing as well.  The fact that the family is Jewish isn't a major factor in their lives -- Pavel's self identity is more tied up in his love for his country and pride in his forbears.

But the Nazis begin to roll into Czechoslovakia. As they hear about and witness events by Nazi soldiers and ordinary people being caught up in the anti-Jewish rhetoric, and as the factory is taken over, Annaliese realizes that her family may not be so safe, and begins to try to convince Pavel that it's time to leave.  Marta, who is not Jewish, is involved in a secret affair with Ernst, a married man, Pavel's foreman, and good friend to the Bauers. As the Nazis begin to get closer to home, she begins to sense a strange shift in him, one that runs contrary to the Ernst she thinks she knows.

While up to this point the novel employs several familiar components of other Holocaust literature, Pick intersperses a modern-day character in between the ongoing story of the Bauers that keeps this book from becoming like so many others.  In Montreal, a woman named Lisa is busy pursuing her life's work, the collection and documentation of stories told by those who escaped the Holocaust as young children thanks to the Kindertransport program. As the Kindertransport Association website notes, this effort began after
"... the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom. It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” The children were to travel in sealed trains. The first transport left on December 1, 1938, less than one month after Kristallnacht; the last left on September 1, 1939—just two days before Great Britain's entry into the war, which marked the end of the program. By that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip."

Part of Lisa's work involves letters sent to these children and to those who took them in by the parents left behind;  the book actually opens with one of these that will immediately draw in the reader to find out more, and more letters and stories are scattered throughout the novel that could tell the story in their own right.

Lisa explains that the Kindertransport story is filled with ambiguities: while she's found many examples of things having worked out for these relocated children, the bulk of the stories are "cases of trauma and upset." Many of the children arrived speaking no English, to poor families, and have had "everything solid ... pulled out from under them." The addition of this researcher, who admittedly can't always "frame the world in objective terms," as academics are supposed to, and the Kindertransport at the heart of this novel,  provides the novel with an added dimension. These elements set it apart from the more conventional aspects of the Bauer family story, as does the novel's end.

Far to Go is a wonderful book.  What I appreciated most about this novel was not so much the story itself, but something else that may not seem so obvious as you're reading through it. I came away with this feeling that the book works so well because Alison Pick chose a subject that is important to her, and that although she's going to make some money on this book, in many ways it rises above the simply commercial. While she wants her readers to connect with the period of the Holocaust, there's so much more here than just riding the wave of emotions you feel about that time period to get you through the novel.  I may get torched for saying this (and flame away), but sometimes I've spotted this approach in a few books set during the Holocaust. There is a real story at work  here -- how the Kindertransport affected those who made it out, those who were left behind, and those who made room for these children in their homes. There are, of course, also the events leading up to the need for its creation.  I don't mean to imply that Far to Go is at all clinical in the telling, because the opposite is true -- unless you're cold and unfeeling, the novel will unavoidably tug at your emotional heartstrings. I've often noticed that sometimes the best writing happens when an author is passionate about what he/she writes, and that is definitely the case here.

So go get a box of tissues and have nothing else planned while you're reading this book.  You will not want to put it down.


  1. This book sounds so worthwhile, Nancy. I have also stepped away from Holocaust literature, because so much of it gave me nightmares. I took a small step back with A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True, which I absolutely loved earlier this year. I will definitely consider reading this as well.

  2. I absolutely loved this book. I was also a bit hesitant initially, but this was on a totally different level from other Holocaust books. So glad that you enjoyed it too!

  3. Sounds good, Nancy. Glad you tried it for us.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.