Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Review: Far to Go by Alison Pick

I've been putting off reviewing this simply because I don't see how I can possibly do it justice. Reading this book was somewhat akin to being stabbed very deeply with something very sharp -- you feel like you might get away okay, and then you walk a few steps and realize you're bleeding all over the place.

Holocaust literature is such a delicate, marshy, minefield-laden thing. You have to respect an author -- a young one, at that -- who even attempts one more entry in the field, and this one is very, very good. The narrator of the book interviews Holocaust survivors and their children for her books, and says that "they can come off as selfish, ths survivors and their children. As closed and cramped, dark knots of grievance. That too is Hitler's legacy: the poison never fully flushed out." This articulates something I have often struggled with, how the Holocaust killed six million Jews and also blighted the lives of so many who didn't die, by killing the people they would have been, by leaving them unable to live unpoisoned lives, or to raise their children without transmitting all their terror and despair down through generations.

There are tropes -- the wealthy, secular Jews who can't bring themselves to envision how bad things will get until it is far too late, the non-Jewish family friend who manages little by little to convince himself of the morality of stealing from his friend and business partner -- but they become fully-realized characters, and the increased closing-off of their options is claustrophobically palpable. The character of Marta, the nanny to six-year-old Pepik and witness to the secrets and frailties of Pavel and Anneliese, the Jewish couple, is finely drawn and compelling. They are all so clearly caught in a huge maelstrom of monstrous unfairness, and you want to cry out and warn them while understanding that of course they wouldn't want to leave their home, their livelihood, or send their children away to strangers, because who could really believe what was coming?

The 'mysterious narrator' conveys an overarching sense of bitterness and fatalism, which increases with the realization that none of the events recounted are actually known to have happened, but are rather an imaginative mosaic pieced around a few facts and letters. This kind of thing can go really badly wrong sometimes, but Pick seems to have found the exact formula for making it work. Somehow she renders it completely clear, that we'll never know all the stories of all the people, that all we'll ever have is letters, fragments, statistics, and that the only way to overcome this and properly mourn the people is to imagine the stories.

"I wish this were a happy story. A story to make you doubt, and despair, and then have your hopes redeemed so you could believe again, at the last minute, in the essential goodness of the world around us and the people in it." It's not a happy story. It is note-perfect, and devastating.

6 comments:

Mary Lynn said...

Sounds like a great book, though I think I'd have to get myself in the right state-of-mind for reading it. Sometimes I just can't handle reading novels that are so dark.

Gwen said...

Sold! I requested it from the library...only 51 people to read it before I get it. Sigh.

Patti Murphy said...

Wow. I don't read books that have the words "despair" or "tragedy" on the jacket. I already feel like a wander around skinless, I'm pretty good at hiding it though.

The pain instilled by novels like this is just too sustained for me. Your review is gorgeous and poignant--a short stab of agony is all I can bear.

Thanks for writing it. I won't read the book though.

Kelly said...

Your review is so compelling, I've added this to my list. Have you read Stones from the River?

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

This book sounds like something I just can't handle. I do very badly with mildly depressing stories. This one sounds like I would be tossed into a pit of despair and never get out. Compelling review though.

Mom of the Perpetually Grounded said...

I don't know if I'm up to being stabbed deeply right at the moment but I would be interested in this book at a time when I'm feeling lighter myself. I think my daughters might want to take a look at this one. I'll be telling them to look for it.