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Someone very close to me once asked why it was that I read fiction, particularly novels that seemed destined to have tragic endings. Preferring to read autobiographies and ‘feel good’ paperbacks, they didn’t understand why I seemed to bind so much of myself and my thoughts to something fictionalised.
If you’ve ever questioned the significance of literary fiction, do yourself a favour and read this book.
I could talk about tapping into the vastness of the human experience but Anna Funder; the author of All That I Am articulates it best in her online interview (read it here). This connection with our history may be facilitated through a fictional character, but the events, experiences and emotions are very real.
All That I Am is centred on three individuals, tied together by love, ideology and circumstance, during the most infamous years of Germany, 1919-1944. Ernst Toller is a brilliant left-wing writer and poet, Dora Fabian an anti-Nazi activist and Ruth Becker is Dora’s cousin and kindred spirit.
Other characters are also central to the plot but I believe it is these three that are the crux of the story. All That I Am is told from the point of view of an aged -and ailing- Ruth Becker, now living in Australia, and Ernst Toller who is writing his memoirs in 1940, USA.
History can be examined in a ‘bottom-up’ approach. That is, we can study events by examining the everyday lives and stories of the people of the time. In one sense, that is what All That I Am does. We follow Dora, Toller and Ruth with her husband, Hans from the unstable 1920’s, to their forced exile to Britain in 1933; and their efforts to fight against the Third Reich from outside of Germany’s borders.
Everyone has some knowledge of Hitler’s Nazi Regime and its brutalities. It’s this knowledge that gives the story its chilling edge.
We watch as our three ideological protagonists organise socialist meetings in kitchens with other refugees, attempt to smuggle anti-Nazi papers into Germany, and warn the world of the Regime while still playing by the appeasement laws of the British. We share their dread and fear as Hitler’s powers grow and leak out across the borders, in the form of his Gestapo, to silence his enemies and the gears of war begin to turn.
But this is only a single layer. The real story is about love, and not the kind where reality is brushed over in favour of an easier packaged version. Funder writes about a love that is infinite and undeniable but ultimately denied or lost; of a love of self, love of an imagined station in life, love of an idea, and love of a country.
A good book will make it seem that you watch the events unfold in front of your eyes, like a film. An excellent book will make you feel that you are with the characters; you see the world through their eyes. All That I Am was the first book that I’ve come across where the characters speak to a part of you, a shared understanding, and it’s the mark of something quite different.
Now that I’ve finished it, I’ll put it back on the shelf and probably never pick it up again. But I’ll carry the characters and lessons with me for a long time. This is an absolute must read, although not an easy one.
ReViewer’s Update (22/06/12): Anna Funder has won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for All That I Am. ( read it here). Even more of a reason to check it out!