I joined a book club for the friends, but the real value of the club has been the introduction of new authors and titles that I’d not have found myself (Okay, bit of a stretch, the friendship (and wine) has been pretty valuable, too….). Don’t despair if you’re not the book club kind of person, you can get the same direction to new kinds of reads from your librarian, your independent bookseller, or *cough* your favourite book review blogger.
That said you probably don’t need me to introduce you to Alison Pick. Because (unlike me) you probably know about her: Far to Go was nominated for the Man Booker, she’s won a bazillion important prizes, been on all of the lists of best books, identified as “the” up-and-coming Canadian author. Oh and she’s an alumnus of the University of Guelph. So… I had a little literary blindspot. Tiny. So thanks book club friends for getting me sorted. Now that I’ve found her writing I’ll not be forgetting it (or stopping at this novel). All this to say Far to Go is excellent and you should read it, too. If you’ve not met Pick’s writing yet either, let this be the moment of unexpected pleasure. If you’re already familiar then I have to know: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? (An aside – why aren’t all of you sending me recommendations all the time? I could stand to have more variety pointed my way… Anyway.)
So the book. Set in Czechoslovakia in 1939 it follows the story of Marta, a governess for a rich, secular Jewish Bauer family as the Nazis seize control of the country. Woven throughout are short passages of the narrative of a contemporary researcher in Canada who researches the lives of the Kindertransport: Jewish children ferried out of occupied countries at the outbreak of war.
These short contemporary flashes make explicit the constructedness of the imagined life of the past, the sort of hiccuping self-awareness of historical fiction’s reminder to readers that we know history through fragments, and we create a pieced together narrative from these fragments, filling in gaps with fictions so that we can have the assurance of plot. Serving more than the usual ritual of historiographic metafiction, the attention to the holes of history work here as a thematic expression of the loss of life and attendant story that the Holocaust represents: the absence in the present that can only ever be filled by imagination.
The bulk of the narrative is given over to Marta and her commitment to the Bauer family (a parallel to the way the contemporary narrator is similarly invested in the families she chronicles in her research), with questions of how Marta defines her worth independent of this family. Marta’s actions and motivations are rich, complex and entirely fascinating. The Bauer parents – Pavel and Annelise – are somewhat less fully developed, but are nevertheless compelling. Marta’s young charge, Pepik, is a brilliantly captured five year old. The novel rarely leaves the household – either literally or figuratively – yet it doesn’t feel claustrophobic; rather it reveals the way the grand historical moment is experienced in the small, domestic. Taken together the family and their impossible choices that they must nevertheless make what could feel sweeping feel heartbreakingly particular.
The writing is extraordinary. I often complain about writing that is trying to be literary and so comes across as overly workshopped (I’m still trying to figure out how to best describe this writing – all I have right now is ‘knowing it when I see it.’) Far to Go is a beautiful example of not this effort-ful beauty. It is just. beautiful.