This story of German dissidents who fled Berlin for London in the lead up to the war is as much an exploration of exile as it is a tale of political commitment and the nature of bravery and treachery. It spans three continents and many decades. The four main characters are political activists who escape from Germany as Hitler starts to clamp down on the press and free speech. Ruth, Hans, Dora and Toller start a new life in London but are determined to continue the campaign against the Third Reich. However, problems lie ahead, for as exiles they are forced to live a life which is much diminished compared to the one they led in Germany, where they came from privileged backgrounds. Young and unaware of what lay ahead, Hans packed only his typewriter, folio and evening clothes when he fled Germany.
There is much to admire in the story telling, the smaller characters are drawn well and the cultural background in London is full of wit and insight. The upper class Mrs Franklin, a wealthy supporter of the exiles, is just as convincing as Mrs Allworth, their local cleaner. Equally good are Funda’s observations of the Australian landscape, the beauty of Sydney and the character of inhabitants like Bev, Ruth’s carer in her old age.
Despite the solid nature of the writing three of our six readers were left cold by the book and unmoved by its main characters. This may be due to what we felt were the somewhat indistinguishable voices of Ruth and Toller who narrate the story. Ruth looks back on her life from her old people’s home while Toller is long dead. Whilst using multiple viewpoints is very fashionable at the moment, it left a number of our readers frustrated. Ruth’s voice, now that of an elderly and mainly hospitalised woman, taking hits of morphine to assist the story telling, is at times an amusing character, honest about aging. But it is a shame that at times, her present self, whilst well drawn, is something that the reader can feel a little impatient with as it interrupts the flow, particularly the main story of Dora.
We didn’t feel we got any greater insights into Toller, a person of real historical interest. His voice remains distant and there is a lack of personal feeling which, as this is a fictional account, is a missed opportunity to connect with the reader. In a tale about bravery and treachery, we are also stopped from getting close enough to Dora, the main character and the one who truly demonstrates bravery, to understand her properly. Hans, through whom we should be able to decipher something of what leads to treachery also stays beyond our reach.
The author, Anna Funda, already a prize winner for an earlier book of non fiction, Stasiland about post war East Germany, has continued to explore many of the same themes of conscience and responsibility in this book. This is her first fictional book and in addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year Award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jeffries Award , it won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award for fiction in 2012. All this created high expectations and whilst the pre-war era is a period some of our readers felt was opened up through reading this book, in the end, as a group of readers, one of whom was not even moved to finish the book, an average score of just 3.8 was given.
Thank you to Danielle Rowe who contributed this article on behalf of the Book Club