It’s not easy to write about this book and what is even worse – this is the very first time I almost forgot to write the review of one of my readalong titles. The book is not bad as such, I didn’t suffer while reading it or want to abandon it or anything like that. It just never reached me, if you know what I mean. It was like listening to the radio while talking to someone at the same time. You hear some individual words which briefly get your attention but overall it’s just background noise. This has certainly nothing to do with the topic as such but was entirely due to its execution. I was wondering before starting the novel why people called this “faction”. Now I know.
All That I Am tells the true story of four friends. Ruth Becker, her cousin Dora Fabian, the playwright Ernst Toller and Ruth’s husband Hans Wesemann. At a time when hardly anyone noticed, they knew that Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 was a very bad thing. Being part of the communist and socialist movement, they were not only in opposition to the National Socialist party but in grave danger from the beginning.
The chapters alternate between the point of view of Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller. They are both told in the present, just before their deaths, at different points in time. Ruth is living in Australia when she is looking back on her life, while Toller stays in the US in 1939 and tells Dora’s story from his point of view. Although they were both important, and, in Toller’s case, even more famous than Dora, their stories focus on Dora who was the center of their respective lives, their best friend and lover.
After a small act of rebellion – Ruth hangs a red flag out of the window, after Hitler comes to power – the four friends have to fear for their lives. People are being arrested and executed if they openly criticise the regime.
The four decide to leave for London and continue their work there. They fight in order to raise awareness of what is happening in Germany and still hope that Hitler will be overthrown.
At first they might have felt like they had escaped but Hitler’s agents were everywhere and even people living abroad were executed. They hear daily about people they know being killed. They must also fear that there is a traitor among them.
I’m not going to reveal more as the book works best, I think, when you don’t know too much in advance. That way it’s at least to some extent surprising. There are a few dramatic events and unexpected developments.
While I didn’t know these particular stories, wasn’t familiar with the four people, I knew enough about German history, so that this particular slice of it, had nothing new to offer. What was new were the stories of the four friends but the way this was told was not very interesting. It’s true, the book picks up speed in the second part but still, it read like Funder had tried to fill facts with life but didn’t really succeed. All we got was a half filled balloon hovering half a meter above the ground. It never managed to fly high up in the sky.
The best parts were the few moments telling Toller’s and Ruth’s final days.
Those who have read Stasiland, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book on Eastern Germany, were all very enthusiastic, which makes me think it would have been better if she had opted for the same approach here. Only, the facts are kind of meagre and maybe she thought turning something you could have told in 50 non-fiction pages would work better if turned into a full-length novel.
As for the topic – Yes, there were people who were aware as soon as 1933 that things were going wrong in Germany. Toller and his friends were not the only ones. There was a large number of writers and artists, communists and socialists who left Germany as early as that. What the book doesn’t explore is the fact that if the communists and socialists would have been able to overthrow Hitler and his party, Germany might not have been much better off.
Sure, it’s an interesting story, sad and dramatic but told in a lifeless manner and very dry. It certainly didn’t work for me. Luckily it worked for others.
The review is also a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge.
All That I Am was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Winter in Wartime by Dutch writer Jan Terlouw. Discussion starts on Friday 28 June, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.