I’m a little late with my wrap up of the first week of the readalong for a few reasons: one, that my work schedule kept changing on a daily basis (leaving me more tired than usual); two, I didn’t start reading until last Sunday and three, this book is damned hard for me to get into!
I didn’t finish the prescribed pages (1-124) until Friday night. That’s something of a slow record for me – 6 nights for 124 pages, which is less than 21 pages per night! I thought about taking it on the train to work (as it can be a good way to force myself to read!) but my train read was actually very good.
Is this book ‘bad’? No, definitely not. It has a lot of features that I generally like in a book: historical fiction, multiple perspectives, a little known piece of history and jumping from present to past (yes, I normally like that kind of thing). But it just didn’t mesh for me.
One thing I’d say to people who were planning to read this book is: this is based on a true story. It involves real people and real events. The failing of my copy is that it doesn’t tell me that! In a fit of boredom, I went to the back of the book and read the extensive Sources and Acknowledgements section. I don’t think it is a spoiler for you if I tell you that Ruth, Dora Fabian and Ernst Toller are all real. I wish this was on or near the front. I don’t like being ‘fooled’ in that way that something is entirely fiction when it isn’t. (Hello, The Street Sweeper).
In the first section of the book (almost Part 1 in its entirety), not a lot happens past establishing the scene and the characters. We learn that Ruth is in the present, an elderly lady with a medical condition living in Bondi, Australia. She receives a package from New York containing work by Ernst Toller. The narrative drifts back to Ruth’s upbringing and moving across to Toller in New York pre-WWII, rewriting parts of his autobiography, I Was a German. Ruth gradually grows up and joins her cousin, Dora in Germany (she technically lives in Poland – boundary change post-WWI). She meets Hans, a journalist vocal against Hitler and they are married. When Hitler comes to power, things become more dangerous for the group, who are campaigning for change.
I’m not one for marking passages or copying quotes, so please check out the other participants of the readalong if you’re interested.
The writing is good, sparsely furnished (you’ll never read intricate details about what the women are wearing). It’s more about the action than deep introspective feelings or reflections. I can say that the action does pick up nicely in the second section of the readalong – but you’ll have to wait until next week for that.
As for characters, I’m finding it easier to relate to Ruth than Toller. Perhaps it’s because we see Ruth as a fragile, ill, elderly woman in addition to her younger days. Toller certainly has his faults and we know he has his demons, but he’s far from an open book.
Is it worthy of the Miles Franklin award? Possibly – it certainly fulfils the technical qualifications, but to me it reads like I’m a distant outsider, looking in. I like my books to embrace me more and feel part of the action.