I laboured two thirds of the way through this, thought longingly of all the dozens of unread books strewn around the house, and then firmly shut it. Not known for being a person who gives up on anything, let alone a book with plenty of praise on the covers, so feeling ever so slightly guilty, I did a bit of on-line googling. To my surprise, there are many readers who have felt pretty much the same as me, and what's more, that I should continue reading. Which I did. And yes, it did pick up not long after the point at which I had stopped. Thank goodness for that.
But...the last third certainly does not get away from the, as one online reviewer put it "worthy but a bit turgid", tone of the whole book.
It is 1930s Europe. Fascism is steadily spreading its evil footprint across the continent, nowhere more strongly than in Germany, with England doing its utmost to appease and mollify the unstoppable rise of Hitler and his cohorts. Since the late 1920s a small group of activists, some Jewish, some not, with a socialist bent rather than communist, have been trying to educate the German public of what Hitler's intentions are, but of course the public are generally blind to that. Hitler's coming to power in 1933 basically forces these individuals into exile - mainly to England, but also France, Switzerland and USA. Those that end up in London are Dora Fabian, probably the leader of the group, her on-off lover the famous left wing playwright Ernst Toller, her cousin Ruth and Ruth's husband Hans. These were all real people, as were a number of other characters in the story, but some names and events in the story are different from those in real life.
The story is narrated in alternate chapters by Ruth, now an elderly lady living alone in present day Sydney, and Ernst Toller who, in May 1939, is telling his story to his secretary in a hotel room in New York City. Anything involving Hitler, activists and Jews, is never going to end happily, and naturally it does not in this story, or in real life for that matter.
This is a great story, but apart from the last third, really never gets going as a piece of story telling. It takes a while for the story to get going, and this is probably due to all the background history that the reader needs to understand 1930s Germany. The constant jumping around between a sick elderly lady reminiscing in 21st century Sydney; a depressed, broke, middle-aged dreamer in pre-war New York; and the action taking place in the 1920s-mid 1930s, plus all those German names, takes a bit of thinking to keep track of. As a result, I never really felt engaged with any of the characters and felt quite removed from the action, almost as if I was reading this story through some sort of transparent screen.
Before becoming a writer, the Australian born author was an international lawyer, working in the areas of human rights, constitutional law and treaty rights. I have been reading her blog, some of her writings and she comes across as a woman with roaring fire in her belly for the many injustices that go on in the world. She writes with well-reasoned logic and great purpose and she does that too in this novel. But I wonder if something has been lost in keeping true to the facts and the message that she wishes to convey. Apart from the last third, the book reads more like a text than a novel. But none of this detracts from the importance of the subject matter, and that is was not only the Jews who were extensively persecuted and interned in concentration and labour camps. There are many people of great courage who sacrificed much during this appalling time in modern history, and it is important that authors like Anna Funder ensure their stories are told.