Far to Go by Alison Pick (2010) Harper Perennial (2011) 336 pp
Last year around the time of Canada’s Giller Prize, KevinfromCanada reviewed and recommended Alison Pick’s Far to Go, 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 practicing. 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.