Ruth Becker, defiant and cantankerous, is living out her days in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past - and a part of history that has been all but forgotten.
Another lifetime away, it's 1939 and the world is going to war. Ernst Toller, self-doubting revolutionary and poet sits in a New York hotel room settling up the account of his life.
When Toller's story arrives on Ruth's doorstep their shared past slips under her defences, and she's right back among them - those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested - and in some cases found wanting - in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history.
Based on real people and events, All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places. Anna Funder confirms her place as one of our finest writers with this gripping, compassionate, inspiring first novel.
As you may or may not know, I find the subjects of World War I and World War II to be completely fascinating. I love reading about the bravery of people who were put in desperate situations, about the relationships that they formed under such duress and so much more. Many of the stories that I have read and enjoyed over the years have taken place against the background of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and other minorities, and often feature those local people who took up against the oppressors in any way they could, often at great personal risk.
It is very easy to forget that those tools of oppression were turned first against the Germans themselves - those people who tried to oppose Hitler's regime as it came to power, again often at great personal cost. The first concentration camps were built not house Jews, but to house the growing numbers of political opponents in the 1930s.
Australian author Anna Funder has chosen to tell this story - one that I can't remember hearing much about before. Her story takes place during the 1930s as Hitler came to power. She chooses two storytellers to reveal the events that were happening - the first is Ernst Toller who is in a New York hotel room in 1939 writing his autobiography and the second is Ruth Becker, an elderly lady who is living in Sydney and who receives a copy of Toller's book bringing back all sorts of memories from those turbulent years - memories of those she loved, those she lost, those she was betrayed by.
And yet, even though Funder has these two different perspectives relating the events of that time to us, neither Toller or Ruth are the central character. That honour belongs to Dora Fabian who is Ruth's cousin and Toller's former employee and lover. Even both Toller and Ruth acknowledge this (from page 358):
Toller was always kind to me, but it was clear he inhabited a different sphere. I was neither beautiful nor important enough to occupy a place in his world. But he did not send me this life of his with Dora put back in because I am her cousin. He has sent it because we had her in common. We were the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going.
Ruth and her husband Hans, Toller, and Dora are all part of the vociferous opponents that the Nazis need to silence, anyway they can. Even when in exile though, they seek to keep trying to inform the world of the dangers of allowing Hitler to continue to reinforce his power unchecked.
Dora herself seemed to be quite the amazing figure. She took risks that seem quite unbelievable and yet the fact that they are true adds a great deal of poignancy. She loved freely if not always deeply, lived life to the full as much as possible and was able to gain access to some of the most influential people of her time in London and beyond in the course of her efforts to shed light on events taking place in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
I have to wonder what the author was trying to achieve by having Dora as the central character but using the two different voices to relate the events. They both did bring different aspects of the story to life, but at times their own stories distracted rather than enhanced the narrative. Of the two, I found Ruth's most interesting, especially in light of her story of how she came to be in Australia.
Most of the characters and events are based on real life which should lend the story a great deal more fascination, and yet for me, the narrative really didn't work all that well until probably the last third of the book. In that section, the adrenalin was pumping just a little bit as I realised who the ultimate betrayal would come from, what the final events of the book were going to be. Before that, however, I found the pace of the novel to be quite slow and ponderous and it was difficult to maintain all that much interest. There is some promise in the novel though. The author does have some lovely turns of phrase and seems to be able to identify forgotten stories that are very interesting.
Anna Funder enjoyed great success with her first book, Stasiland, which was a non-fiction account of life behind the Berlin Wall. Whilst this novel didn't work for me on every level, I will be making an effort to read Stasiland as I have heard lots of good things about it.