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.