Out of the ruins, life and hope emerge

It feels like ages since I’ve posted; have been deluged in work since my last post. But I have managed a little reading. First, I read Anna Funder’s All that I Am, winner of the Miles Franklin award this year. And frankly, I was disappointed. I won’t give it a lot of space here, except to make two points. I found it hard to get engaged with the story, and when I reflected why, I concluded that it seems a rather constructed (dare I say journalistic?) narrative, told in the voices of two people who were of a small group of friends who fled Germany as Hitler rose to power, and carried on resistance work from London. For me, it didn’t have the deep, compelling power of the best fiction, that makes you enter the world of the characters, get into their skins, wonder what they will think or do next. My second point is that I don’t understand why it won the one Australian literary award that is meant for a novel of the highest literary merit, that presents Australian life in any of its phases. I won’t dispute its right on literary merit; to do that, I’d need to do an in-depth review. But as for presenting Australian life, I cannot see its relevance. Sure, one of the surviving narrators ends up in Australia, and spends the last few years of her life in Sydney, but this is incidental to the theme and emotional core of the novel, which is about resistance to tyranny, and love assaulted by betrayal and loss.

Moving on: Fugitive Pieces, a debut novel by Anne Michaels, was first published in 1996 (sometimes it takes me a long time to get round to books) and was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction, I think deservedly so. It was made into a film, which I hope to track down. It, too, is about the evils of the Nazi regime. A little seven-year-old boy, Jakob Beer, in Nazi-occupied Poland, witnesses the murder of his parents and abduction of his fifteen-year-old sister, and flees from the horror. He hides in a forest near a buried village, and is rescued by Athos, a Greek geologist, who smuggles him back to his remote home on a small Greek island. Together, they live out the war, living on very little. After the war, Athos takes him to Canada, where Jakob grows up, immersed in ancient history and archaeology, and haunted by memories of the destruction of his family, and especially, of his sister, who did not die in front of his eyes, and so, in his imagination, still lives. He matures, falls in love with a wild spirit, and survives the loss of that relationship, and more, only to fall in love a second time, deeply and healingly, with a woman who understands his losses, although she has not lived them. The second part of the narrative is carried on by the son of a friend of his, who retraces Jakob’s journey, and learns the lesson that Jakob had learned towards the end of his life.

If that summary leaves holes, it’s because I am writing this review in a hurry, and I don’t want to give the whole story away. What I do want to say is that the writing, the construction of character in this book is rich, exquisite and memorable. Sometimes too rich; I found that I could only read a few pages at a time. So, for instance, Jakob as a young child, rescued, but still traumatised, haunted by his family and his lost childhood:

They waited until I was asleep, then roused themselves, exhausted as swimmers, grey between the empty trees. Their hair in tufts, open sores where ears used to be, grubs twisting from their chests. The grotesque remains of incomplete lives, the embodied complexity of desires eternally denied. Their strain poured from my skin, until I woke dripping with their deaths. Daydreams of sickening repetition — a trivial gesture remembered endlessly. My mother, after the decrees, turned away by a storekeeper, then dropping her scarf in the doorway, bending down to pick it up. In my mind, her whole life telescoped into that single moment, stooping again and again in her heavy blue coat. My father standing at the door, waiting for me to tie my laces, looking at his watch. Skipping stones on the river with Mones, wiping the mud off our shoes with the long grass. Bella turning the pages of a book.

I could give many more quotes, but will stop there, and hope that, if you haven’t read the book, you will. It is extraordinary, moving and profound, and all those other cliches that are thrown around in blurbs on book covers. But here, I feel, they are deserved.

Do let me know if you’ve read it, and if so, what you think of it.

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10 Comments

Filed under award-winning fiction

10 responses to “Out of the ruins, life and hope emerge

  1. Your comments on Anna Funder’s book are interesting. Stasiland was much better. I have tried a couple of times to read it, but it did not engage me, and the voices of the characters seemed synthetic to me. I shall probably persevere, so I can make a better judgement.
    I found your comments on Joan Didion’s book, and that of Joyce Carol Oates, and the other author, whose name escapes me right now, most interesting, having read all of them, during the first year after my husband’s death. Bereavement and its effects are so personal, so deep, strong and all-consuming, that the reading of the experiences of others is both absorbing and acutely painful. One book I read years ago was John Tittensor’s Year One, written after his children perished in a house fire. I think I did not succeed in sending my comments, but am having anotherf go!

  2. Thanks for your interesting and moving comment. I’ve yet to read Stasiland. I keep wondering why All that I Am has been so acclaimed and awarded. Your word ‘synthetic’ is very apt. For me, the characters seemed constructed, like marionettes, and did not come to life. It seemed that they were there to ventriloquise the history of the time. I’ll be interested to hear your final judgement, if you do return to the book. But it does show subjective literary awards are, and I also think it’s a bit like a fire in the cane fields; once a few plants catch fire, others are caught, and it takes off. There’s a sort of group conflagration. So I think blogs like mine and some of the other excellent ones that are around are a second wave of criticism, which responds to but doesn’t necessarily join in the crowd effect. Am I biassed?

    The other author of a grief memoir that I praised highly is Virginia Lloyd. I started to read Joyce Carole Oates’s A Widow’s Story, but was very disappointed in it; it seemed gushy and verbose, every page littered with dashes, and undisciplined in comparison to Didion’s memoir. I didn’t warm to the latter, but admired the writing of it.

    You say the experience of others, when you are bereaved, is acutely painful as well as absorbing. I agree with you. Do you think it is cathartic as well?
    I haven’t read Tittensor’s memoir, will look for it.

  3. Your comments are so interesting, Christina. I really loved Fugitive Pieces when I read it some years ago. It felt like poetry at times. Isn’t it interesting that there continues to be an appetite for Holocaust-related fiction, with so many new writers tackling this period of history? Do you have thoughts on why this is?

    • Yes, I don’t know how I missed it. But I guess it came out when I had my head buried in finishing my degree; in those years I read little fiction. You’re right, it is like reading a long poem, and it is often, as the title suggests, fragmented, there are gaps you have to fill in, and towards the end, I was more aware of these and felt more disjointed in my responses. But perhaps this is the author’s intention, to reflect in a mirror the disjointed, broken identities of Holocaust survivors, their children, and those who love them. It feels as though the writer is right in there, part of the story, yet you know she is the dramaturge. A masterpiece really, though not a comfortable one.
      I’m not sure why so many are returning to this watershed of human civilisation; perhaps it is like a tsunami or an earthquake, with after shocks that continue, in this case, through generations, and make us keep revisiting and relearning the lessons. I think we need it. we need to keep remembering, and relearning.

  4. Annette

    I’m so glad to read your comments on Anna Funder’s novel. I do an Australian bookshow Thursdays 9-10am (NSW time) on community radio (streaming via http://www.2bbb.net.au) and thought I was the only one in Australia who didn’t like the book, for the same reasons as you. I can’t understand why all the lit awards judges (because the book won many more, not just the Miles Franklin) liked it so much! I’m pretty sure that Richard Flanagan meant her book when he wrote in his recent essay against literary awards something to the effect that sometimes ‘wooden’ books win all the prizes.

  5. It’s great to hear your voice, Annette. I’d love to listen to your community radio show, but my little boom box doesn’t get good radio reception here. Think I’ll have to invest in a digital radio. I’ll try and pick it via internet.
    Anyway, you’re clearly not the only one who didn’t like it, and I think it’s important that our dissent is heard. I haven’t read the RIchard Flanagan essay, will look for it. It is a mystery, isn’t it? And I have to say that, as a writer, it is very discouraging, when your book or story doesn’t get awarded, or just misses out, and you see others being awarded and published and think ‘hmmm; what’s so great about it?’ But it’s easy to sound sour grape-ish.

    The other thing that annoys me is that once a writer gets awarded, with multiple and major awards, as Funder has, she or he becomes a celebrity, personal profile articles appear with glossy glamorous photos in the Weekend Australian review etc., and from then on, anything they write automatically gets notice and coverage (especially, I have to say, if they have a journalistic background). And the democratic voice of readers, their real life responses and opinions, are not heard, or if they are, they are quickly forgotten. Perhaps I will take the time soon to write a considered review of All that I am. Not a good year for the Miles Franklin, in my book. I have absolutely no axe to grind against the author; I’m sure she was passionate and sincere when she wrote it; but I just don’t think the book is worth all the fuss.

  6. Pingback: All That I Am, by Anna Funder | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  7. Christina, I am so with you about All That I Am! I am still uneasy about the way it captured every prize around when, in the assessment of many of us outside the literary cliques, it was lacking in some fundamental ways. Have a look at the comments on my blog, and also the link to the Sydney Review: http://anzlitlovers.com/2012/02/29/all-that-i-am-by-anna-funder/ – one day someone will write a PhD on the Miles Franklin winners that are problematic and this ‘faction’ will be among them IMO.

    • I’m glad we’re on the same page there. When you read a really good literary novel, like Fugitive Pieces, or closer to home, the same year All that I am was accoladed, Gillian Mears’s Foal’s Bread, you wonder where the judges heads were at. I read the Sydney Review piece, and wrote to the author praising his forensic critique of the novel in question and the performance of critics in relation to it.

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