All That I Am is Anna Funder’s first novel. Her previous non-fiction book, Stasiland, about communist East Germany, was highly acclaimed. All That I Am is set in the 1930s, prior to the start of the Second World War. Real people and events are used as a springboard to an involving work of fiction.
Told through the eyes of Ruth, now an old woman living in Sydney, and Toller, a left-wing playwright, the story revolves around Dora Fabian, an anti-Nazi activist. ‘We were the two for whom she was the sun,’ says Ruth.
Toller dictates his tales about Dora to a secretary in a hotel room inNew York. Meanwhile, Ruth’s mind wanders to the past while sedated in hospital after an accident. This complex setup and the time shifts between Toller’s voice, which is in the 1930s and Ruth’s, in the present, took a bit of getting used to.
The three have fledGermanyduring the first wave of Nazi terror, when thousands of opponents of Hitler were jailed or killed. Living as refugees inLondon, they try to expose the threat of the Nazis to a country bent on appeasement. A climate of fear and suspicion is created as the reach of the Gestapo extends further.
The complex romantic relationship between Dora and Toller, who is married to a teenage bride, adds tension to the story. Ruth is married to the handsome Hans, who finds refugee life aimless and difficult to endure.
This story is about courage, love and betrayal. Each of the characters has to choose where they stand in the face of suffering. As Ruth says; “It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?”
Writing a fictional tale based on fact can be a difficult task to pull off. Constrained by real events, the author must imagine the internal landscape of the participants. Funder, who is clearly passionate about her subject, has largely succeeded in this.
While I did find the book difficult to get into, by the end I was fascinated and moved by this story of a part of history which was unfamiliar to me. All That I Am will reward those who can hang in there long enough to get over the initial confusion.
Lisa is on a mission to review at least six Australian Women Writers in 2012. To find out more see http://www.australianwomenwriters.com/