All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

All That I Am – Anna Funder

All That I Am
Anna Funder
Penguin AU
2011, 363p
Purchased for read-a-long

Ruth Becker is in her 90s, diagnosed with an incurable illness. One day at her northern beaches home, she receives a package containing the memoir of Ernst Toller, someone from far back in her past. As she sifts through the papers, Ruth is transported back far in her past and the looming threat of WW2 in Germany.

At 18, Ruth goes to visit her cousin Dora in Munich in 1923. Ruth and Dora have always been more like sisters rather than cousins and the two of them are incredibly close. Dora is heavily involved in the activities of the left in Germany, opposing the rise of Hilter and the darkness that will come with it. Ruth meets the dashing and brave journalist Hans Wisemann, well known for his pieces against the man who will come to change the course of German history. Theirs is an intense affair and they are married and living in Berlin when Hitler is elected Chancellor.

Overnight Hans, Ruth, Dora and Ernst Toller, a playwright freed from jail and Dora’s lover and named in a list of outlaws overnight and are forced to flee Germany to London, England. There they continue their work, helping refugees, printing pamphlets to sneak back to Germany, keeping up with the atrocities Hitler is committing in order to establish his rule and trying to help people that have been left behind. Although London has granted them residency and relative freedom, they do not wish to know anything about why they have fled from Germany – they are willfully ignorant of Hitler and the power he is becoming obsessed with amassing.

Through reading Toller’s work, Ruth takes the reader on a guided tour of her young life, the happy marriage that disintegrated, the fierce love she had for her cousin Dora, a love that Toller shared despite their very unusual relationship and the unravelling of the passionate foursome and their work.

I bought All That I Am when several of us on twitter selected it for our next read-a-long title. The chapters alternate between Ruth in the present and Ruth in the past and Toller writing his memoir so the time jumps around considerably. I have to admit that at times I struggled a lot with this book. The first 60p crawled by and I found my attention wandering often, especially during Toller’s chapters. I found Ruth’s story far more interesting, especially when it got to the sections about her and Hans fleeing Germany and the risks Dora took as well in order to get Toller’s work to a safe place. I resented being pulled out of that headspace to get back to Toller, who is re-writing his memoir to include Dora, whom he left out the first time around.

The parts that interested me were the parts concerning Hitler. This takes place prior to WW2 so is not about the Holocaust or Hitler invading countries, it is about the way in which he quashed opposition in his own country before going on in an attempt to conquer Europe. The ruthless way in which Hans, Ruth, Dora and Toller (and presumably many others) were hunted out of the country with barely the clothes upon their backs was telling – he was going to tolerate no underground political activity, no contentious newspaper articles, no debate. His word was the only way and if you were a dissenter it was best to leave or face horrendous consequences. When you read about WW2 and Hitler, it’s generally always about what came later, so the fact that this book devoted so much to the before, was something that I really enjoyed. In fact if it had been a linear narrative from Ruth, detailing her adolescent life, marriage and then forced fleeing of Germany, I’d probably have absolutely loved this book because of them all, I enjoyed Ruth the most as a character and I feel that a linear structure would’ve enabled me to get to know her better.

Because of the jumping around in both place and time, I did struggle to connect to the characters. Although told from Ruth’s perspective it seems that the book is really about Dora and her story – it is Dora who does the heroics, who has the answers, who is always involved in helping people who need it, who keeps the secrets. However I couldn’t really connect to Dora and even though the book sets up the reader early to wonder about her fate, when that section of the book finally arrived, it had very little impact on me at all and I suspect that this is probably not the intended response. I felt more about the court case/trial that came afterwards than I did about what happened to Dora and I can’t entirely explain why. I struggled to like her throughout the narrative, not being able to see what Ruth was trying to portray and I felt that she contributed greatly to the downfall of one of the characters in the novel, who turns betrayer.

Anna Funder has previously written non-fiction, this being her fictional debut (although it’s anchored in non-fiction as the character of Ruth, Toller etc are all real). At times the characterisation and writing felt quite clinical, like it was factually describing a true event, not weaving a story that ultimately, I should end up caring about. I was never ultimately sucked right into this story – I found it all too easy to put down in stages.

All That I Am won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award – one of the most prestigious literary prizes for Australian fiction and I was quite aware that this seemed a controversial decision when it was announced. Having read the novel I can now see why some people were surprised that this one was given the nod: one of the criteria is that the book must depict Australian life, in any/all of its forms. Now I know that Australia is mostly a land of immigrants, some displaced by war or persecution, some by choice, some enforced by the British Empire. Ruth is such an immigrant and although the present day section of the novel is set in Sydney, the remarks about Sydney are very brief and I feel that it could have been set anywhere in the world and it would not have affected the novel at all (which is something we discussed in the read-a-long). There’s no explaining why Ruth chose to come to Australia in the late 1940s and there’s absolutely no account of her life here in the country. So I have to admit: I join those who find the decision to award the prize to this book a little curious. I’m not criticising the literary merit, or the story, my thoughts on that are my own and have nothing to do with the prize. I just find the Australian context lacking.

I find it hard to rate this one… I didn’t love it, I didn’t dislike it.


Book #141 of 2012

All That I Am is the 48th novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2012. It also fulfills my desire to read more major literary prizewinners, being the recipient of the Miles Franklin Award of 2012.