Earlier in the week I was stuck in a carpark. The ticket paying machine ate my ticket so I couldn’t get the car out. There was no-one in the office and no after hours number. I spend a good 10 minutes trying to figure out a way out of this situation, freaking out and complaining loudly on twitter before I noticed that the boom gates were up anyway. *Facepalm* At least I could laugh about it. Eventually.
I’m preparing myself to feel equally stupid after this review because, I confess, I wasn’t in love with Anna Funder’s All That I Am, the darling of the literary scene a year or so ago. I was surprised to discover it won the 2012 Miles Franklin. I was even more surprised to note that Charlotte Wood’s Animal People was long listed in the same year. I suppose it’s unfair to compare them too directly, they’re totally different in subject matter, tone and construction. But then how does the panel select a winner for literary awards?
I loved Animal People. All that I Am was one I really struggled to get through. I had to have a couple of people give me a pep talk just to convince me to finish it and even then I was picking it up and putting it down for the better part of six months. Probably that kind of disjointed reading didn’t do the novel any favours either. But if a novel doesn’t grab you, is it really that good? I mean, deserving of the country’s top literary award good?
So, All That I Am. Ruth is a middle class German jewish woman who flees Germany as the National Socialists take power. Living with her cousin Dora and husband in London, every move is dangerous. They are keenly aware of increasingly restricted freedoms, murders and outright atrocities happening in Germany but unable to bring them to light safely. Finally, Ruth emigrates to Australia where she lives out her days.
It’s a good concept, three different first person narratives, at three different points in time, during a tumultuous period in human history. Ruth of 2001 starts to reminisce about her experiences before the war when a manuscript from author Ernst Toller, amended in 1939, arrives in the mail. In 1939 we are with Toller has he makes those changes to his autobiography. Finally we are also with Ruth in 1933, as she flees Germany, as she lives in London, as she loses everything she had. I liked the different time frames we were hearing from, it seems appropriate for a historical novel to take snippets from each, it added a sense of perspective and a feeling of the inexorable turning of the wheels of history. I felt both enlightened by the novel and a hideous sense of hindsight. However, this is like The Time Traveller’s Wife, if you’ve got a good concept really commit to it. I wanted to hear a distinct voice, distinct fears and temperaments from each character. I couldn’t marry Ruth of 1933 to Ruth of 2001, though perhaps that was intentional. I didn’t find her husband a convincing character, nor an especially likeable one. I found Dora far more interesting. And the ultimate act of betrayal in the novel, well, I don’t think I was invested enough for it to move me. By the time I got to it in the later half of the novel I received the plot twist with a shrug.
I enjoyed the novel, I would recommend giving it a go. But the judging panel of the Miles Franklin considered this novel the “best” in Australian literature in 2012. Interestingly, I had similar trouble sticking with 2011 Miles Franklin winner Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, except that one I didn’t finish. Do I have terrible taste? Did I miss something really obvious like my failure to spot the car park boom gates were up the other day?
All That I Am by Anna Funder: three stars.
Read it if: you want to delve into history, if you want to see what all the fuss is about.