Smooth steps along well trod­den path

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

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

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