Title: All That I Am
Author: Anna Funder
Genre: Historical Creative Non-Fiction
Plot summary: Four German activists piss Hitler off by trying to tell the world what a tool he is, get banished to England and have unexpected and unfortunate demises.
Rating: 3 out of 5 skewed swastikas
About five chapters into All That I Am I came to the unnerving conclusion that there must be something wrong with me.
I had been so excited to sit down with this book (2012 Book of the Year; Literary Fiction Book of the Year; Indie Book of the Year). It felt like the literary equivalent of having an intimate dinner with a hot date. Except part way through main course you realise that they are actually incredibly dull.
All That I Am is the story of four political activists, agitating against the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany. Their persecution and subsequent escape to London, and their tragic endings or survival constitute a little written about period of WWII history.
All That I Am is broken down into chapters. Nothing unusual there. Except each chapter is written by one of two main characters, and it spans not only time (from the early 1920s to late 2000s) but geography (Germany to England to New York to Australia) and if you’re a lazy reader or can only manage one chapter at a time, you need to orient yourself each time you pick up the book.
Unfortunately there are no helpful little signposts at the beginning of each chapters, no ‘Germany 1938’ or ‘Present Day Bondi’. No, you are expected to actually read every word and figure it out for yourself. Like I said, not for lazy readers. And when it switches decade mid-chapter thanks to the onset of dementia in one of the narrators, you also feel like you are losing your grip.
Despite the highly emotive subject of the book — the fact that the four main characters are lovers and friends, the devastating effect of Hitler’s persecution on not only Germany but the ripple of effects across the globe, the tragic outcomes — I felt as attached to the characters as a poorly fitted bra. Was that a deliberate consequence of the writing style or my inability to pay attention? I wanted to care, I really did, but my overwhelming reaction by the end of the first 100 pages was a resounding ‘meh’.
Did I mention the Miles Franklin award? The Barbara Jefferies Award? Was I really the only person on the planet who didn’t get it?
There are certain chapters and passages in the book which read beautifully, placing you in the nursing home, the nightclub, the ransacked apartment. In those sections you can feel the movement and hear the conversations. The pulse of the music. The sterility and hopelessness of the hospice. Yet, there are also large sections of the book where nothing seems to happen, where large chunks of text seem stagnated and the eye is drawn, flickering, over the page until the next speech mark is sighted.
Luckily for me, I persisted. And magically, after the first 120 or so pages, the story burst forth. The frantic pace slowed down. Things began to happen. As the characters escaped to England, the agitated narrative turned into a moving account of the four protagonists as though the backstory of pre-Hitler Germany needed to be regurgitated as quickly as possible so that the real story could begin.
I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that some of the characters (who are actually real people and therefore lived real lives) have devastating endings, some longer than others. You might get angry. You might be sad. But if you persist, you will be glad you did.