‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - Save & Share - 2 Comments

Historical novels are usually a staple part of my reading diet, but one that has been rather neglected so far this year in favour of trying new things and branching out into different, unexplored areas of literature.  This certainly hasn’t been a deliberate decision and in fact I hadn’t realised that I was reading fewer historical novels until an upcoming title was brought to my attention when I was very kindly offered an advance review copy of Far to Go, a historical novel by Alison Pick set in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War.  I feel rather guilty as real life getting in the way means that this review is no longer as ‘advance’ as it should have been, but on the plus side it means you can pick yourself up a shiny new copy of the book almost right away as it’s available in the UK from the 12th of May.

The inspiration behind Far to Go is Alison Pick’s own family history.  Her grandparents were forced to flee from persecution in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War, eventually settling in Canada.  She uses this to create the story of the Bauer family, a priviledged Czech family who are Jewish by birth but don’t really practise their faith.  However, Pavel, Anneliese and their young son Pepik are Jewish enough to become targets as the Nazi occupations spreads across Europe.  The family must try to work out how best to escape and Marta, their non-Jewish nanny, must decide exactly where her loyalties lie.

The Second World War is a subject which is eternally popular (if that’s the right word) in historical fiction and there are a whole host of memoirs and autobiographies from that time, so a book has to try rather hard to stand out amongst so many voices.  Far to Go succeeds because it has a different situation and a different tone to other books that I’ve read in a similar vein.  Where other novels of the Holocaust can be beautifully, elegiacally tragic, bleakly depressing or even ultimately hopeful, Far to Go feels unusually dirty and distasteful in a way which is extremely effective.  This is not a straightforward book but one filled with complex emotions: it is about betrayal which is ultimately understandable, divided loyalties with no possible solution, the physical ache of regret, and bitterness rather than tragedy.  The atmosphere is particularly well created.

The novel also deals with an aspect of the Holocaust which I’ve not really read about before, most of the books I’ve read being set in Germany.  Pick illustrates well how different the situation was in Czechoslovakia, showing the conflict between Germans and Czechs as a more complex level underlying the usual Nazi/Jew dichotomy.  She also chooses to make her characters a family of secular Jews, and in doing so she is able to explore such a variety of different reactions to the persecutions: Pavel becomes more Jewish, driven to explore the faith which makes him an outcast; Anneliese is desperate to throw off the stigma of Jewishness and escape, and Marta the gentile nanny is forced to see her employers in a totally new light.  Marta’s struggle to decide what to do in her situation comes across as very real and human, and I like the fact that she is neither a saint with no thoughts for her own security nor a selfishly motivated traitor.  I’m sure there were many people who felt exactly as Marta did and were just as confused about their sudden change in status, so it feels very believable.

For all its interesting new perspective, this book is not without its flaws.  The four different strands of narrative in quick succession which open the book (a letter from one character, a letter which it’s only later possible to tell is from a different character, a brief first person section with an unidentified ‘I’ and ‘you’, and the main body of the story in third person with different characters again) are initially very confusing.  It’s impossible to tell if these people are all the same, partially the same or all different and there’s no obvious features to link the four sections together.  It is only as the reader progresses through the book that it becomes apparent who is being referred to in each of them, and while this technique can be effective, I found it to be a few too many things at once with which to open a novel.  This mixed structure continues throughout, and while the inclusion of the letters is particularly poignant, I found that it held me at arms’ length from the characters and their actions.  I watched them experience these powerful emotions and although the overall emotional tone of the book was impressively well drawn, as I’ve already stated, I didn’t find myself feeling along with them but observing from a distance.

The other niggle that I had was the use of Czech words and phrases.  The way that they’re sprinkled throughout the text is actually a rather nice touch as it grounds the novel very firmly in one specific place and adds an authentic flavour of Czechoslovakia.  However, the terms used are rarely explained within the context of the story, and having no experience at all of Czech language, Czech food or Czech cutlure I had no idea what all these things being talked about were.  I know that lengthy explanations can sometimes be tedious and laboured to read and if they are words that Pick is used to using because of her Czech heritage then it may just not have come up as an issue, but at least the first time a Czech term occurs it would be nice if there were some sort of explanation of what it means without me having to resort to constant Googling.   The simple expedient of adding a glossary to the end of the book would solve this problem wonderfully.

Far to Go by Alison Pick.  Published by Headline Review, 2011, pp. 314.  Advance review copy.

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2 Responses to “‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick”

Comment from Cristina (Rochester Reader)
Time May 16, 2011 at 12:54 am

Hi and thank you for visiting my blog recently :-) Your blog looks great and you have such an interesting collection of book posts.
This book sounds fascinating and offers a different viewpoint on a very popular subject. The cover is also quite emotive. Great review and I think that your suggestion about a glossary should be taken on board. It’s these little touches that can really complete the reading experience.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time May 16, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Thank you for the return visit! I do read a relatively odd selection of things, which is an occupational hazard of accumulating so many books I suppose. I’m glad you enjoy it.

This was a good book, and surprsingly fresh given the subject matter. Although it’s too late for the edition which was published a few days ago, I hope that later editions might include a glossary as it would make such a difference to understanding the book.

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