One of the longlisted novels for the Booker Prize 2011, Far to Go is certainly attracting a lot of attention from readers and all with good reason - it’s a refreshing look at a period of history which should never grow stale in our minds no matter how many years go by.
The main focus of the novel is on the Bauers, a young, secular Jewish family living in Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia which has been invaded by Germany. Pavel, a wealthy factory owner, Anneliese, his stunning, self obsessed wife and their six year old son, Pepik flee to Prague hoping to leave the ominous shadow of the Nazis behind them. Marta, their dutiful Gentile governess, accompanies them, not so much out of duty but because they’re all she’s got – she doesn’t hold Jews in the highest regard but, like a lot of ordinary Europeans caught up in the war, she probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why. Eventually, all hopes are lost apart from those pinned on little Pepik who is sent on the Kinderstransport to the UK, hoping to be reunited with his family and Marta after the war.
Despite having studied WWII as part of my History O Level course (many, many moons ago..) my knowledge has remained rather sketchy until recently when I have had the good fortune to read some excellent fiction set during this period. Reading about the Bauers and their efforts (including bribery) to get Pepik out of Czechoslovakia will enlighten readers about the Kinderstransport and the heartache of separation albeit for a greater good, or what they thought was a brighter future…
As well as educating the reader, this novel also achieves a more balanced view of events as the narrator who divulges the Bauers’ fate and who also holds their fate in her hands, is a Gentile with no political aspirations. Marta, the governess, is more concerned with looking after Pepik and protecting him from the growing anti-semitic feeling which is gripping Sudetenland. She has little in common with her conniving adulterous lover, Ernst, who hopes to gain financially from Pavel’s downfall. Still, she’s no saint either and self-preservation is at the forefront of everyone’s mind be they Jew or Gentile, Czech or German.
What I love about Far to Go is its simplicity and unpretentiousness – the characters are flawed, real flesh and blood creations who find themselves in the most surreal of situations and whilst they aren’t always the most likeable they are all the more credible as a result. Yes, it’s a story which will affect you emotionally but it doesn’t dwell on sentimentality and presents the truth in simple prose, in black and white. The one minor difficulty I did have was getting into the rhythm of the story as several narrative strands are introduced very quickly, almost on top of each other – the story of the Bauers set in 1939, a contemporary storyline whose narrator remains a mystery until later and also letters written by Jewish parents to the children they sent to the UK. However, this is just a minor quibble for me and it quickly becomes a compelling, coherent read.
Alison Pick has carved a fresh, fictional work out of the past experiences of her Czech grandparents who fled to Canada following Hitler’s invasion of their native country. It’s a fitting tribute to all those who did not survive and those children who were never reunited with their parents.