Alison Pick: Far to Go

Last year around the time of Canada’s Giller Prize, KevinfromCanada reviewed and recommended Alison Pick’s Far to Go (2010), which he — and based on his review, I — thought might be on the Giller longlist (KFC’s review here).  That didn’t happen.  In fact, as far as I know, Far to Go didn’t make any lists for any of the Canadian awards; it certainly didn’t get touched by any of the ones I follow.  I didn’t forget about Far to Go because Kevin’s review really did get me interested.  However, given the amount of things I have on my reading list, I’m not sure if I actually would have followed up on this one.  Thanks be to the Booker judges, then, who did not overlook this wonderful book and gave me new incentive to read it.  Sadly, despite its Booker longlisting, if it doesn’t go onto the shortlist, it looks like many readers will overlook this book, if the lack of commentary on the Booker debate forum is any indication. 

Before getting into the book, I might suggest a few reasons people are passing on this book.  I know many people are a bit tired of the number of World War II era books that appear to have sentimental overtones, and the title and cover of Far to Go do nothing to relieve those concerns — it just feels familiar, in a bad way.  I share some of the fatigue with this era, though I wonder how much is fatigue with the era and how much is fatigue with the literary conventions used to render it.  It is an easy era to exploit, and there are formulas out there.  It seems many such books put the characters through the same process and horrors; we can almost tell the story the minute we know the characters’ names.  I certainly don’t want to suggest the horrors are not important to remember and re-remember.  It’s just that when they are portrayed so similarly and with similar techniques to develop similar characters, the horrors are more artificial, as if the writer put no thought into it but just rehashed other images, hoping they would carry the emotion in a story that may have little else going for it.

Let’s get one thing straight: Alison Pick’s Far to Go is not that type of book. 

Sure, it utilizes some conventions, and I was worried a few times that it was drifting down that path (confused gentile is shaken when she thinks, “You Jew”; trusted friend becomes betrayer), but Pick subverts those conventions nicely — particularly at the book’s conclusion — and has created here a very ambitious debut novel that benefits from Pick’s research into her own family history and, particularly, into some of her own contemporary concerns that stem from that history.

The central event is the wonderful and terrible kindertransport.  After Kristallnacht, certain British Jewish leaders appealed to Prime Minister Chamberlain to allow for the transport of around 10,000 Jewish children from their homes and families in Europe to foster families in Great Britain.  The stories of heroism to get these children out of Europe are beautiful testaments to the goodness of humanity.  While the hope would be to protect these children until the end of hostilities so that they could then be reunited with their families, most of the families were killed in Europe.  Many of the children were so young they had no recollection of their real parents.  Some grew up Anglican and had no idea of their Jewish heritage.

This central event gives Pick ample opportunity to exploit emotions (again, I don’t think she does).  In the book’s opening pages we read a letter from a mother (the letter is filed under “Bauer, Lore, Died Birkenau, 1943″) to a foster mother who has her son.  I have two young sons, and I couldn’t read this letter without choking up; this is the line that did it:

He is very fond of fruit, especially of bananas.  His favourite soups are: vermicelli, mushroom, potato soup, lentil soup, cumin soup with vermicelli.

It’s simple, sure, but how much does that list of her son’s favorite foods say about the mother’s love.  She can no longer be the mother of this child, and it’s possible he will never remember her.  As I read Far to Go, then, I had to keep checking myself to determine whether I was so engaged merely because of the emotion, which I could have felt just reading some of these letters, or because the book itself had something to say and was saying it well.

The book begins in September of 1938.  Things are getting worse for Jews in Czechoslovakia, and Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are just beginning to glimpse what this might mean for them and their five-year-old son Pepik.  The Bauers are Jews, but they are secular and think this will keep them safe.  We also meet their nanny Marta.  Marta is not a Jew and she is also just in the beginning stages of understanding what’s going on, though she also thinks the Bauers must be safe since they aren’t practising.  Hitler is threatening to “liberate” the Sudetenland.  These characters can’t quite believe that he can get away with that, but they are getting less surprised by his progress.

There were times as the book was getting set up, as we moved closer and closer to the day when Pepik would be set alone on a train to England, that I thought the book was “conventional,” meaning it was going through the necessary motions to get this family from their relative comfort to the horror.  But my worries usually passed quickly as Pick developed the other side to this story. 

Between each chapter we get an older woman first-person narrator speaking to some “you” whom we know has recently died.  This older woman is a researcher who has spent a lot of time interviewing children who were in the kindertransport.  There’s one moment when she says, “There are whole libraries full of books on the subject.  It is even possible to construct little narratives, to attempt to give the whole thing order.”  Such passages gave me hope as I realized that Pick was very aware of the pitfalls she could step in and that she was carefully navigating around them while maintaining the genuine emotion that comes when you read a letter that says, “Your mamenka and I send you a hug and a snuggle.”  Or, “We miss your train tearing around its track.  I am almost inclined to set it back up.”

But aside from the genuine emotion (and I have to say I am still very emotionally attached to these characters), I’d like to argue that any of the parts here that seem “conventional” are that way on purpose, that Pick is setting up a convention in order to then step away and discuss other issues.  To make that argument, I’d have to discuss more fully the development of this other narrative involving the researcher, and that might spoil the book for some.  Suffice it to say, then, that this book is an acknowledged “attempt to give the whole thing order” with an awareness that “there is healing in the telling, but there is also something that gets lost.”  The subtext is why such a telling, then, would be desired at all.

As I mentioned above, Pick has done research into her own family history to create this book.  While the Bauer’s story is not her own personal family history, I think it’s safe to say that some of the issues the researcher brings up are issues Pick herself came across while conducting her own research: issues such as lost heritage, lost religion, abandonment. 

Far to Go is a great book, and I hope it goes on the Booker shortlist so more people can be introduced to it.

9 thoughts on “Alison Pick: Far to Go

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I will bear these comments in mind when I get a look at this, Trevor – it’s a persuasive review. I must say, though, that the little ‘PS’ emblem always puts me off, and what do you make of the cover?

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m completely with you there, Lee. If I passed this book in a bookstore, I wouldn’t pick it up (and, frankly, if I read some passages out of context, my response would have been to set the book back down). The cover and the title (unless you know what the title is referring to — but even then) do not, for me, convey what this book is about. Rather, they seem to direct the book to consumers of that kind of sentimental World War II fiction that I not only do not like but that I think is wrong.

    It’s worth noting here that in the “P.S.” section, Pick says she likes the cover :) .

    Also worth noting, the “P.S.” section is actually really good because Pick goes into her own family heritage, which is interesting, and, for me more interesting, into her unexpected struggles when she came upon that history. Further, it’s a testament to the book that when I finished it I just kept reading into that “P.S.” section, as I was very attached and interested in what Pick had to say. I’m not sure I have ever done that before.

  3. Selena says:

    I was a little surprised at seeing the cover of the book in the review as well. It’s always strange to catch myself judging book covers and how much I’ll like a book by them.

    However, I stopped by for commentary re: Booker longlist. I’m not much of a forum gal, but seeing the blog coverage that Booker longlist books get, I don’t think they’ve lost much popularity. People are disagreeing often with the books chosen, but they’re still giving them a shot. I’m always a few years behind on reading the longlists (too many books, not enough time), maybe others are as well.

  4. Excellent review — I have felt like a voice in the wilderness on this one for almost a year (that’s just me being grumpy, so ignore it). I did figure that the emotion felt by parents being separated from their children would have even more impact for you than it did for me.

    Part of the problem with the book, as you identify in your comment, is that it is almost impossible to describe without making it seem like a cliche (Holocaust, Kinderstransport, letters to children in the UK, etc.). And yet Pick exceeds expectations on every front in a truly literary novel. I read about her personal involvement (conversion?) before I read the book — I can understand why you kept right on through to the PS section. Like Lee, that sticker tends to be a negative for me — I should learn to be less judgmental about it.

    I do think this will also be a very powerful Book Club book (and I don’t mean that as a negative), which is another reason to accept the PS logo. (I’ll be interested in Liz’s thoughts when she checks in.) It is both sad and serious, which is a bit of a book club downer, but it offers so many avenues for discussion. And, since I understand Ms. Pick is a very nice person as well as a talented author, I’d like to see her sell as many books as possible.

  5. Betsy says:

    Thank you for recommending “Far to Go”, Trevor. I began reading it yesterday and couldn’t put it down.

    The book feels deeply believable, concentrating as it does on the price of survival in a holocaust: silences, concealments, betrayals, bribes, thefts, the denials of identity, terrible choices, and failures, the effects of all of which ripple through the generations. Silence is one of the most profound effects of the shame and guilt. For that reason, I found Pick courageous. It is not easy to talk about what has been buried.

    Another reason I find Pick courageous is her willingness to engage our emotions. This is somewhat out of fashion, and yet what are we if we are are not thinking creatures who attempt to understand our emotions and give them expression? Movies, with their color and movement and music, with their emphasis on micro-expression, engage our emotions completely. Why should a book not do the same? I cannot think of another book that I have read recently that evoked so much emotion from me.I did not feel it to be exploitive, however, given that the exploration of the moral quandaries and collapses were so carefully drawn. In addition, in Marta particularly, we see a character slowly understanding the terrible consequences of her choices and impulses.

    In fact, I found the intense experience of emotion to be a necessary part of the learning that the book provoked. “Far to Go” brought me some new awareness of the losses people in my family have suffered, and I cannot say that would be so without the intense emotion the book provoked. At the same time, it also would not be so without the careful structure of the novel and its ideas.

    One of the images that will stay with me is Marta in the empty house, hearing someone who has broken in, someone who is creeping down the dark hall outside her room. Thinking the Jewish family is gone, the thieves have arrived. For what do we sell our souls.

    Another image that Pick uses so well is that of the train – the toy train that engages the boy’s imagination, and the real train that is the scene of his tragedy.

    It was a relief for the book to be devoid of heroes. We’ve had those books, and they are fine in their place, but in fact, heroes were in short supply. I think that must be the definition of holocaust. Alison Pick explores why that could be so, an exploration which is a strange and terrible comfort.

  6. Trevor says:

    Betsy, welcome to this side of the site! Glad to read some of your fantastic comments on one of the books I’ve reviewed.

    I don’t know if you are at all following the Booker Prize, but tomorrow the shortlist is announced. I wonder if we’ll see this book on it. I think this year’s longlist is horrendous, so hopefully it is (though the fact that the longlist is so bad leaves me with little faith the jury will choose this book for the shortlist).

  7. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Trevor, for the warm welcome! I didn’t realize the Booker short list comes out tomorrow. I will be looking for this book.

  8. Trevor says:

    I see our choice did not match the judge’s, Betsy. No surprises there, though I can understand why some would find the book lacking or over-done (two ideas I disagree with — your comment above illustrates why).

    Oh well — at least we found it!

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