Tuesday, February 28, 2012

All That I Am

All That I Am, Anna Funder

Afterwards, I take the bus to hydrotherapy. It is a kneeling bus, one which tilts its forecorner to the ground for the lame, just like me. I ride it from the pink medical towers of Bondi Junction along the ridge above the water into town. Out the window a rosella feasts from a flame tree, sneakers hang-dance on an electric wire. Behind them the earth folds into hills that slope down to kiss that harbour, lazy and alive.

In danger of losing their sight. I had very good eyes once. Though it's another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.

All That I Am is a complicated novel that delves into wartime in Nazi Germany, before its characters are forced to flee to England. The two characters, Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller, who I found out later is actually a real person, are essentially telling the same story, but from different time periods; Ruth is in 2001 and living in Australia, and Ernst is in 1939 and living in New York City. Because the story is so complicated, rather than try to explain it myself, here is the excerpt from the publisher:

"All That I Am" opens in 2001, as nonagenarian Ruth Becker, defiant and cantakerous, lives out her days in Sydney, Australia. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past - and her role in it. But, as she says to herself, 'one can controld reams less than anything in life, which is to say, not at all.' And Ruth's dreams are often of Dora, her brave and beloved cousin.

Another lifetime away, it's 1939 and the world is going to war. In NYC, the famous German poet and self-doubting revolutionary, Ernst Toller, is exiled. He sits each day in the Mayflower Hotel, rewriting and re-living the story of his life - the revolution in Germany he led after the war and his subsequent political imprisonment. Toller finds what sustains him is the thought of the love of his life, Dora. But she's nowhere in his memoir.

When Toller's memoir, with its amendments, arrives on Ruth's Sydney doorstep many years later, their shared past slips under her defenses and she's right back with them all - her husband Hans, and with Dora and Toller - those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested - and in some cases found wanting - in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history."

I liked that this novel was told by two different narrators. Ruth is now 90+ years old, and she has had a hard life; but she has never forgotten Ernst, Dora, or her life during the Nazi regime. I didn't find out until the end that some of these characters were real people, and I think I might have liked the novel better if I had known that at first. The book is very, very detailed, which is great, but which caused me to take a while to get through it; it's about 365 pages as well. The author, Funder, is from Australia originally, and we can see that in some of the spellings (example: "defence," instead of "defense").

The story in All That I Am is a good one, though, and if you take the time to get through it, it's an interesting read.

3 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.


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