Thursday, August 4, 2011

Far to Go

Far to Go by Alison Pick is the affecting story of one family’s struggle to escape the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Bauers, Pavel and Anneliese, are a young, educated, affluent couple. They live a happy life with their six year old son, Pepik and his nanny, Marta. The Bauers have a successful business, a lovely home, a thriving social life. They take trips to London and the Adriatic coast every year. The quiet village where they live is centuries old. It is a picture postcard place of peace and tolerance.

All this is lovely until 1938 when the Nazis arrive. The Bauers are Jewish.  For them the loss of freedoms and the increase of indignities and atrocities begin immediately. Pavel cannot believe what is happening. Worse, he cannot believe that the bigotry and terrorism will get worse. He loves his country and is optimistic about peoples’ willingness to do the right thing. Annaliese is more of a pragmatist. She sees the writing on the wall but she can’t see how to escape it. Soon it becomes vital that the family must flee Czechoslovakia to avoid deportation to the camps.

A series of bad choices by the Bauers and Marta puts them all in even more terrifying danger. These events are unprecedented, overwhelming. None of them are sure what to do, what will be safe, what will work.  Through Marta’s efforts they are able to secure a place on Kindertransport for Pepik. This might mean safety for Pepik but the choices for the Bauers and Marta continue to narrow.

Paralleling this story, Pick brings in the tale the narration of a contemporary Holocaust historian whose special area is the Kindertransport. This academic whose identity the reader doesn’t know for most of the novel, takes a special interest in the Bauer’s story. It’s a tough trick for a writer to be able to divide a book between an emotional hurricane like Jews verses Nazis and a modern day study of those same events and have both parts be of equal interest for the reader. In this effort Pick is not successful.  You are invested in the Bauers and Marta in ways that Pick isn’t able to make happen in the academic’s pursuit of what happened.

Far to Go is on the Man Booker Prize longlist this year and despite some unevenness it’s easy to see why.  Pick does a magnificent job in telling what could be an overwrought story simply. In giving the narration to the gentile, Marta, Pick shows us multiple and diverse reactions to the invasion. The documents and letters included in the text add authority. Best of all Pick allows the small details of the happy life before and the perilous life after build the drama in her storytelling and the book is all the more moving because of that.

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