Sunday, 29 September 2013

Book Review No. 20: All That I Am

This book was the first of our 2013-14 Book Club choices. It's not a book I would ever have chosen to read otherwise because it's (mostly) set during an era and in a country about which I don't tend to enjoy reading, namely the 1920s and 1930s in Germany. I have a tendency to avoid any books on the Second World War (or any war really) after spending a great many Fridays working on a project that involved visiting an archive in London and poring over photos of the destruction and desecration that occurred in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, and reading eye witness accounts of displaced persons and concentration camp survivors. It's turned me into a wuss and I do my best to avoid being reminded of what I saw and read.

However, I was determined not to fall at the first Book Club hurdle of the year, so I got on with it. For the first 100 or so pages I struggled; I found the book turgid (although well-written), not to mention confusing, and the characters uninspiring. But then, bam, something happened in the story and from there on in it was a rollercoaster ride where I just wanted to keep on reading.

The book is a work of fiction based on real people and real events, which makes it all the more intense. There are four main characters: Ruth Becker (one of the narrators), her husband Hans Wesemann, her cousin Dora Fabian and the left-wing playwright Ernst Toller (the other narrator), all of whom play a determined part in attempting to keep Hitler from coming to power. When their resistance efforts fail they are forced to flee Germany, and all but Ernst travel to London where they continue their opposition, despite the danger of being sent back to Germany and certain death, if they are found out. I was very interested to read of the ways in which Hitler and his regime sought to prevent any opponents from speaking out, and also about the possibility that the supposed arson attack on the Reichstag building (the German Parliament) in Berlin might actually have been started by the Hitler regime and falsely blamed on the Communists as a way of ensuring the passing of an emergency decree which suspended the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other constitutional protections. It was interesting, too, to read how Britain and its government reacted to political and other exiles forced to flee Germany and seek refuge in the UK.

The story is told from the points of view of Ruth and Ernst in alternating chapters. Ruth's chapters are written with the hindsight of 60 years and from her new home in Australia, while Ernst's are written in the inter-war years from the hotel in New York where he lived. I think the fact that the narrators are both 'looking back' does make the characters and events seem slightly more remote at times, and it also took some getting used to at first but, despite some flaws, I would still recommend this book if you are interested in the history of that period, but don't want to read a book that is solely about 'the war.' Even if, like me, you tend to avoid books on this era, you might still want to give it a go.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting, I'm struggling with our current book club read, about life in Pompeii just before the eruption!


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