ALL THAT I AM: A NOVEL
Author: Anna Funder
Penguin Australia RRP $29.95
Review: Monique Mulligan
I decided to read All That I Am: A Novel as part of a bloggers’ read along after it was named winner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Painstakingly researched and told through the perspectives of Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller across a number of different eras, All That I Am is based on real people and real events.
‘When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon . . . ‘
The story starts in the present day with Ruth Becker, defiant and cantankerous, living out her days in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past and a part of history that has been all but forgotten. Another lifetime away, it’s 1939 and the world is going to war. Ernst Toller, self-doubting revolutionary and poet, sits in a New York hotel room settling up the account of his life.
When Toller’s book arrives on Ruth’s doorstep her defences slip and she starts to relive the days when she and her friends, including her feisty cousin Dora Fabian, gave all they had to fight against the brutal Nazi regime. Dora is Toller’s lover, a key activist against the rise of Nazism and Hitler, and her heroic story is told through Ruth and Toller’s recollections.
I found All That I Am harder to read than I thought it would be. It took me quite a while to get hooked; it was not a book I was able to dive into and read fast (even though the storyline is relatively fast-paced in Ruth’s chapters). It’s very dry reading – closer to non-fiction – and the two-person narrative across different eras led to some confusion initially. I found I had to keep checking who the narrator was until their voices became more distinct.
I also felt that the novel for the most part lacked an emotional connection for me. The characters had passion for their ideals and politics, for what they felt was right, but I found it hard to connect with them personally. Imagining myself in their position helped – it would have been horrific, devastating and challenging and gut-wrenching – but I still felt a distance from the characters, making it hard to really feel their fear, panic and passion for their beliefs. That said, the latter third of the book was devastating and I felt somewhat numbed by the outcome, echoing, I suppose, Ruth’s desire to numb herself from the past. As the book moved to its conclusion (though it was only the beginning for some things from an historical perspective), events fitted into place and some of the characters’ motivations made more sense to me. By the end, I was left with a lingering unease, much like I expect it would have been after the war.
Funder’s prose is beautifully executed and there are ample profound quotes contained within the pages. Despite its aloof feel and the fact that I found it difficult to get into, her novel is excellent in terms of research and literary skill. Did I enjoy it? It’s hard for me to enjoy a book about war and politics. I don’t have the same passion for ideals to feel what the characters felt, to really understand them. I was also in a head space where I needed something less demanding to read, so, no, I didn’t love it – but I would still say it’s worth reading.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This was my own copy.