Smooth steps along well trodden path
FAR TO GO is a Holocaust novel that isn’t really about the Holocaust. Though it has everything you would expect from a book set in the years leading up to the Second World War ---tragedy, betrayal, uncertainty, brutality ---it is not about gas chambers, selection lines, ghettoes or deportations, although those elements all appear in one guise or another.
Rather, Alison Pick’s Man Booker longlisted third novel deals with the rocky and conflicted relationships between staff and servant, mother and child, and husband and wife. She writes about life before the Nazis and the ways in which those who lost everything attempted to pick up the pieces after their defeat and departure.
We first meet the Bauer family — an affluent, assimilated and resolutely nationalist family of Czech Jews — in September 1938, just before the Munich Agreement and the annexation of the Sudetenland.
Pavel Bauer is a successful businessman, a man about town with his glamorous young wife, Anneliese, and their son, Pepik. The family celebrate Christmas but ignore Rosh Hashanah and all but sneer at the Orthodox Jews they encounter.
Yet they are Jewish and, before the end of the first page, we know they are doomed. They, however, remain con- fident that it couldn’t happen to them — and refuse to run.
Woven in to all this are snippets from a modern woman, an expert in the Holocaust with a mysterious connection to the ill-fated Bauers. Bringing an original touch to such familiar material is no mean feat, yet Pick manages to achieve it consummately. She writes beautifully and her characters are convincing even when they act against t hei r a pparent natures. Drawing on her own family experience, she also intersperses historical facts about the Nazis, the Czechs and the Kindertransport.
What really sets the book apart, though, is the narrator: Pepik’s nonJewish nanny, Marta, who veers between feeling fiercely protective of her employers to observing them with the same revulsion as those who welcomed the Nazi occupation. A lowly servant girl from an “unsuitable” background, Marta finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being powerful because of her religion but weak because she is reluctant to accept that the normal way of things has been uprooted.
Hers is an authentic voice; she anticipates much of what is to come and is neither saintly righteous gentile nor villainous collaborator. She is simply a young woman, caught up in a world for which she was unprepared. As heavy and at times heartbreaking as her tale is, Pick’s writing is so gripping that my only complaint is simply that the book is too short.
Jennifer Lipman is a JC reporter
Alison Pick: assured