Thursday, 19 January 2012

Memories of a dangerous time

A few months ago I had not heard of Australian writer Anna Funder. Then, in October 2011, I read her extraordinary non-fiction account of life in East Germany, Stasiland. I fell in love with her writing style and her investigative abilities and became engrossed in her book. When I was finished I was keen to read more of her work, and fortunately she had just released her first novel, All That I Am (2011). Having read this wonderful novel I can confirm that Funder is now among my favourite novelists.

All That I Am is a complex literary work which interweaves numerous timeframes, characters and locations. But these complexities make for a rewarding read in this fictionalised account of what happened to German playright Ernst Toller, activist Dora Fabian, journalist Hans Weseman and his photographer wife Ruth in the lead up to the second World War.

The story begins as a reflection from the elderly Ruth, now living alone with declining health in Sydney. Ruth receives a package in the post containing some writings of Ernst Toller which cause her to remember her early life in Germany and the rise of the Nazis. Told in alternative narratives from Ruth in modern day Sydney and Toller in 1930s New York City, the reader gets a sense of the fear growing in Germany as neighbours became spies for the Fuhrer. No one was safe.

The story picks up pace during the second part set in London during the 1930s, where Ruth and a group of German expats tried to sound a warning to the English of what was happening back home under Hitler. They smuggled news from home, distributed leaflets about the plight of the Jews and raised funds to support their exiled colleagues. All the time they were followed by the Gestapo working in London.

Funder knew Ruth and learned much of the story from her. She then built on her knowledge with her research skills and she pieced together the lives of these young people. As Funder explains, she had the bones on which to build this compelling tale.

Whenever I find a writer I love I tend to quickly devour all of their works. Unfortunately Funder has no back catelogue on which I can draw, but I do hope she is earnestly at work on her next novel.

My review of Stasiland is also available on this blog.