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Archive for the ‘Alison Pick’ Category

I am somewhat troubled by how under whelmed I was by Far to Go by Alison Pick.  This really should be a book that I have strong feelings about – it was, after all, a book I was quite excited to read, so much so that I requested a copy from the publisher; when have I ever been able to refuse a book about Czechoslovakia, never mind one set in the exciting years of 1938 and 1939 and written by a Canadian?  And yet even as I was reading it, I felt strangely disconnected from it.  It was neither glaringly bad nor especially good.

I think the single biggest problem was that I resented the modern narrator, Lisa, for her role in the story.  I liked it quite well as the tale of the Jewish Bauers, Pavel, Anneliese, and their son Pepik (Joseph), and Pepik’s loyal governess, Marta, trying to negotiate the terrifying changes brought on first by the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland and then Hitler’s full-fledged occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, beginning in March 1939.  For a Czech nationalist and patriot like Pavel, a man who did not actively observe the faith that would see him condemned, the loss of his business, his wealth, and his autonomy are heavy blows.  Pavel and Anneliese are able to get Pepik a spot on the Kindertransport when their plans to escape as a family are thwarted, sending him to, they hope, a safe and loving home in Scotland.  And while the majority of the novel is set in the late thirties, each section begins with a first person narrative from the researcher Lisa, trying to meet up with the adult Joseph.  It is their meeting and the truths it reveals that do not sit well with me.  Her revelations completely alter the way Joseph had conceived of his past, which is upsetting for him but fine by me, but then we learn that the whole story, the entire book was really Lisa’s way of trying to make sense of what she knows of the past, a fiction within fiction, which seems too clever by half.  There’s also a sort of half-hearted reference – repeated so that you do not miss it – to a female lover of Lisa’s, which does not really add anything and seems there more to titillate than add to her character.  It seemed a bit cheap, frankly, and I could have done without it.       

However, Pick does an excellent job with her characterization of her main characters, particularly her primary narrator Marta, and the best moments are sometimes the quietest ones.  Most of the novel takes place in the home, and the domestic scenes are the best: Marta alone in the Prague apartment, venting her frustrations by vigourously scrubbing the floor; Pavel coming home and breaking the news of Beneš’ resignation; Marta and Anneliese negotiating how to tell Pepik of his upcoming journey to Scotland.  More than anything, I was struck by the scene presented by Pavel and Anneliese’s return from a night out and their recounting of the swell of patriotism expressed by their countrymen and women in a city already captured.  A scene that, like Marta, I can well imagine and be touched by, even without having witnessed it:

Only once that month did she and Pavel go out together, to the National Theatre.  They returned to the flat after curfew, cheeks flushed pink with the cold.  The Prague Symphony’s rendition of Bedřich Smetana’s patriotic suite, “Má Vlast”, had been followed by a standing ovation, Pavel said, that lasted a full quarter of an hour.  His eyes shone as he told Marta about the tears in the audience, the cheers and whistles from the otherwise refined European elite.  The applause stopped only when the conductor actually kissed the score and held it above his head, like an Olympic athlete with a medal. (p. 214)

Pick is very good with the tiny details: the untranslated bits of conversation in Czech, the mentions of delicious national dishes and timeless traditions, and the throw-away remarks about the ease of obtaining an entrance visa for Britain after the Munich Agreement, “an apology for the betrayal” (p. 157).  But her attempts at foreshadowing felt clumsy and forced and there was little grace to the flow of the story as a whole.  I cared about the characters, particularly Marta, but that did not prevent me from occasionally becoming frustrated with Pick’s writing style (there is a particularly irritating simile about Marta and Anneliese being like runners in a three-legged race that I wish I could forget).  But the story is interesting and, on the whole, the book’s positive features outweigh its flaws.

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